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Human endogenous retrovirus HERV-K (HML-2) RNA causes neurodegeneration through Toll-like receptors

Dembny, P;Newman, AG;Singh, M;Hinz, M;Szczepek, M;

Although human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) represent a substantial proportion of the human genome and some HERVs have been suggested to be involved in neurological disorders, little is known about their biological function and pathophysiological relevance. HERV-K(HML-2) comprises evolutionarily young proviruses transcribed in the brain. We report that RNA derived from an HERV-K(HML-2) env gene region binds to the human RNA-sensing Toll-like receptor (TLR) 8, activates human TLR8, as well as murine Tlr7, and causes neurodegeneration through TLR8 and Tlr7 in neurons and microglia. HERV-K(HML-2) RNA introduced extracellularly into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of either C57BL/6 wild-type mice or APPPS1 mice, a mouse model for Alzheimers disease (AD), resulted in neurodegeneration. Tlr7-deficient mice were protected against neurodegenerative effects, but were re-sensitized towards HERV-K(HML-2) RNA when neurons ectopically expressed murine Tlr7 or human TLR8. Accordingly, transcriptome datasets of human brain samples from AD patients revealed a specific correlation of upregulated HERV-K(HML-2) and TLR8 RNA expression. HERV-K(HML-2) RNA was detectable more frequently in CSF from AD individuals compared to controls. Our data establish HERV-K(HML-2) RNA as an endogenous ligand for human TLR8 and murine Tlr7 and imply a functional contribution of specific human endogenous retroviral transcripts to neurodegenerative processes such as AD.