Antipsychotic Drugs Increase the Activity of Endogenous Retroviruses in Humans

Scientists of the Helmholtz Zentrum München show in the current issue of PLoS ONE that drugs such as valproic acid may influence HERV expression likely by inducing epigenetic alterations.

Prof. Dr. Christine Leib-Mösch, Institute of Virology, Helmholtz Zentrum München

Antipsychotic Drugs Increase the Activity of Endogenous Retroviruses in HumansAntipsychotic drug treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar disorders* may stimulate the activity of human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs)* that are natural components of the human genome. This was described by Olivia Diem, a member of the research group of Professor Christine Leib-Mösch at the Institute of Virology, Helmholtz Zentrum München, in a study published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE. Elevated expression levels of various HERV groups have been repeatedly described in patients with schizophrenia and associated with the disease. Now for the first time, the research team at Helmholtz Zentrum München has shown that this stimulation may be caused at least partially by the patients’ medication. The researchers conclude that the medication may influences the epigenetic* state of some but not all HERV types.

“Our results show that medication should be generally tested for epigenetic effects on the target cells. Not only endogenous retroviruses, but also cellular genes may be activated or inactivated leading to severe side effects,” said Professor Leib-Mösch, explaining the background of the study.

Schizophrenia is a multifactorial neuropsychiatric disorder. Besides genetic predisposition, various environmental factors such as infections during pregnancy, but also endogenous retroviruses may play a role. The identification of some HERVs that are activated in schizophrenia independent of drug treatment could therefore help to understand the pathomechanisms of the disease. The goals of the Helmholtz Zentrum München are to understand the pathomechanisms of common human diseases and to derive new targets for diagnosis, therapy and prevention.

Further information

* Neuropsychiatric disorders are often treated with drugs such as valproic acid, which can modulate the epigenetic status of cells through the inhibition of histone deacetylases.

* Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) constitute about 9% of the genome and are remnants of germ line infections by exogenous retroviruses about 30 to 40 million years ago. Since that time HERVs have been amplified and spread throughout our genome by retrotransposition and reinfection. The expression of HERVs is normally restricted by epigenetic mechanisms of the host cell. However, HERVs can be reactivated by environmental factors such as radiation or chemicals. The group of HERV-K(HML-2) elements represents the youngest and most active HERVs in humans. Along with several other HERV groups, HERV-K(HML-2) has been repeatedly associated with schizophrenia – interestingly, the activity of these HERVs in brain cells is not influenced by valproic acid.

* Epigenetics describes characteristics of the genome that are not determined by the nucleotide sequence of the DNA but by its chemical state (e.g. methylation level) or marks of the chromatin environment (e.g. histone acetylation or methylation). Epigenetic alterations contribute to the activation or inactivation of genes. Epigenetic characteristics can be altered by environmental influences and passed on during cell division.

Olivia Diem et al. (2012): Influence of Antipsychotic Drugs on Human Endogenous Retrovirus (HERV) Transcription in Brain Cells. PLoS ONE, in press.

The Helmholtz Zentrum München, the German Research Center for Environmental Health, pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München has about 1,900 staff members and is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich on a 50-hectare research campus. It is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 18 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 31,750 staff members

Contact for media representatives

Sven Winkler, Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health (GmbH), Ingolstädter Landstraße 1 85764 Neuherberg – Phone: +49 89-3187-3946 – Fax: 089-3187-3324 – email: [email protected]

Scientific contact:
Prof. Dr. Leib-Mösch, Institut für Virologie, Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health (GmbH) (GmbH), Ingolstädter Landstraße 1 85764 Neuherberg – Phone.: +49 89-3187-3270 – Fax: + 49 89-3187-3329 – email: [email protected]