Human endogenous retrovirus onco-exaptation counters cancer cell senescence through calbindin

More about Open Access at the Crick


Increased levels and diversity of human endogenous retrovirus (HERV) transcription characterizes most cancer types, linked with disease outcomes. However, the underlying processes are incompletely understood. We show that elevated transcription of HERVH proviruses predicts survival of lung squamous cell carcinoma (LUSC) and identify an isoform of CALB1, encoding Calbindin, ectopically driven by an upstream HERVH provirus under the control of KLF5, as the mediator of this effect. HERVH-CALB1 expression initiates in pre-invasive lesions and associates with their progression. Calbindin loss in LUSC cell lines impairs in vitro and in vivo growth and triggers senescence, consistent with a pro-tumor effect. However, Calbindin also directly controls the senescence-associated secretory phenotype (SASP), marked by secretion of CXCL8 and other neutrophil chemoattractants. In established carcinomas, CALB1-negative cancer cells become the dominant source of CXCL8, correlating with neutrophil infiltration and worse prognosis. Thus, HERVH-CALB1 expression in LUSC may display antagonistic pleiotropy, whereby the benefits of escaping senescence early during cancer initiation and clonal competition are offset by the prevention of SASP and pro-tumor inflammation at later stages.