HERV-K activation is strictly required to sustain CD133+ melanoma cells with stemness features

Ayele Argaw-Denboba, Emanuela Balestrieri, Annalucia Serafino, Chiara Cipriani, Ilaria Bucci, Roberta Sorrentino, Ilaria Sciamanna, Alessandra Gambacurta, Paola Sinibaldi-Vallebona, Claudia Matteucci

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Melanoma is a heterogeneous tumor in which phenotype-switching and CD133 marker have been associated with metastasis promotion and chemotherapy resistance. CD133 positive (CD133+) subpopulation has also been suggested as putative cancer stem cell (CSC) of melanoma tumor. Human endogenous retrovirus type K (HERV-K) has been described to be aberrantly activated during melanoma progression and implicated in the etiopathogenesis of disease. Earlier, we reported that stress-induced HERV-K activation promotes cell malignant transformation and reduces the immunogenicity of melanoma cells. Herein, we investigated the correlation between HERV-K and the CD133+ melanoma cells during microenvironmental modifications. Methods: TVM-A12 cell line, isolated in our laboratory from a primary human melanoma lesion, and other commercial melanoma cell lines (G-361, WM-115, WM-266-4 and A375) were grown and maintained in the standard and stem cell media. RNA interference, Real-time PCR, flow cytometry analysis, self-renewal and migration/invasion assays were performed to characterize cell behavior and HERV-K expression. Results: Melanoma cells, exposed to stem cell media, undergo phenotype-switching and expansion of CD133+ melanoma cells, concomitantly promoted by HERV-K activation. Notably, the sorted CD133+ subpopulation showed stemness features, characterized by higher self-renewal ability, embryonic genes expression, migration and invasion capacities compared to the parental cell line. RNA interference-mediated downregulation experiments showed that HERV-K has a decisive role to expand and maintain the CD133+ melanoma subpopulation during microenvironmental modifications. Similarly, non nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs) efavirenz and nevirapine were effective to restrain the activation of HERV-K in melanoma cells, to antagonize CD133+ subpopulation expansion and to induce selective high level apoptosis in CD133+ cells. Conclusions: HERV-K activation promotes melanoma cells phenotype-switching and is strictly required to expand and maintain the CD133+ melanoma cells with stemness features in response to microenvironmental modifications.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20
JournalJournal of Experimental and Clinical Cancer Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 26 2017


  • Cancer stem cell
  • CD133
  • HERV-K
  • Melanoma
  • Microenvironment
  • Retroelements

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


Dive into the research topics of 'HERV-K activation is strictly required to sustain CD133+ melanoma cells with stemness features'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this