Syncytial cell formation in vivo by type C retroviral particles in the systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) lung

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Significant numbers of syncytial cells were observed in the bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) of a 42-year-old patient who had SLE with interstitial pneumonia. Electron microscopic study of the BALF cells and positive reverse transcriptase activity in the supernatant of the cultured cells revealed unknown retroviral particles in the BALF cells. No antibodies to known human retroviruses or proviral sequences were detected. Type C retroviral particles and positive reverse transcriptase activity were also observed in co-cultured U937 cells. To evaluate the pathogenic role of unknown type C retroviral particles, screening for antibodies to this retroviral particle was performed by immunofluorescence in 26 patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, 17 patients with SLE, 22 patients with lung cancer, and 58 healthy volunteers. Serum antibody to this putative type C retrovirus was detected in 24% of SLE patients, 27% of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis patients, none of the lung cancer patients and 2% of healthy volunteers. Although no direct evidence of this virus as the pathogen for SLE could be demonstrated, a possible role in the development of SLE and interstitial pneumonia might be suggested.

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