Date of Graduation


Document Type

Dissertation (PhD)

Program Affiliation

Virology and Gene Therapy

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Advisor/Committee Chair

Feng Wang-Johanning, MD, PhD

Committee Member

Gary Johanning, PhD

Committee Member

Mark McArthur, DVM

Committee Member

Paul Wong, PhD

Committee Member

Laszlo Radvanyi, PhD

Committee Member

Thomas Goka, PhD



Publication No.________
Kiera Rycaj, B.S.
Supervisory Professor: Feng Wang-Johanning, Ph.D., M.D.

Ovarian cancer (OC) is the fourth most common cancer in women, and the most lethal gynecologic malignancy in the United States. Adequate screening methodologies are currently lacking and most women first present with either stage III or IV disease. To date, there has been no substantial decrease in death rates and the majorities of patients relapse and die from their disease despite response to first-line therapy. Several proteins, such as CA-125, are elevated in OC, but none has proven specific and sensitive enough to serve as a screening tool or for tumor cell recognition and lysis. It has been proposed that human endogenous retrovirus sequences (HERVs) may play a role in the etiology of certain cancers. In a previous study, we showed that HERV-K envelope (env) proteins are widely expressed in human invasive breast cancer (BC) and ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), and elicit both serologic and cell-mediated immune responses in BC patients. We also reported the expression of multiple HERV genes and proteins in OC cell lines and tissues. In this study, we strengthened our previous data by determining that HERV-K env mRNAs are expressed in 69% of primary OC tissues (n=29), but in only 24% of benign tissues (N=17). Immmunohistochemistry (IHC) staining revealed HERV-Kpositivecancer cells detected in endometrioid adenocarcinoma and serous adenocarcinoma but not in benign cyst or normal epithelium biopsies. Immunofluorescence staining (IFS) showed greater cell surface expression of HERV-K in OC samples compared to adjacent uninvolved samples. Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) data confirmed that a humoral immune response is elicited against HERV-K in OC patients. T-cell responses against HERV-K in lymphocytes from OC patients stimulated with autologous HERV-K pulsed dendritic cells included induction of T-cell proliferation and IFN-γ production. HERV-K–specific cytolytic T cells induced greater specific lysis of OC target cells compared to benign and adjacent uninvolved target cells. Finally, upon T regulatory cell (T-reg) depletion, 64% of OC patients displayed an increase in the specific lysis of target cells expressing HERV-K env protein. These findings suggest that HERV-K env protein is a tumor-associated antigen capable of activating both T-cell and B-cell responses in OC patients, and has great potential in the development of immunotherapy regimens against OC.


retrovirus, ovarian cancer, immunotherapy



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