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The human endogenous retrovirus-K encodes two potential tumor proteins, Rec and Np9. Rec is related to the Rev protein of HIV-1 and has been shown to be associated with tumor development in nude mice. Having shown the expression of human endogenous retrovirus-K in human melanomas and melanoma cell lines, tools were developed to allow the expression of the transmembrane envelope, Rec and Np9 mRNA and proteins to be studied in more detail. The expression of spliced env, rec and np9 was investigated by reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction using a set of primers developed to discriminate between full-length and spliced mRNA. Env-specific, Rec-specific and Np9-specific antisera were produced, characterized and used to study protein expression in melanomas and melanoma cell lines by immunohistochemistry, immunofluorescence and Western blot analyses. Existence of human endogenous retrovirus-K Rec and Np9-specific antibodies in the sera of melanoma patients were analyzed by Western blot of immunofluorescence studies. The expression of both spliced env and rec mRNA was detected in 39% of the melanomas and in 40% of the melanoma cell lines and np9 mRNA was detected in 29 and 21%, respectively. In normal neonatal melanocytes, spliced rec mRNA was detected in the absence of spliced env mRNA. Using antisera specific for Rec and Np9, Rec protein was found in 14% of the melanomas but Np9 in none. In addition, cell surface expression of the putatively immunosuppressive transmembrane envelope protein and release of virus particles were shown. Antibodies specific for neither Rec nor Np9 were detected. The transmembrane envelope protein, Rec and Np9 proteins are expressed in melanoma cells with a pattern similar to that seen in teratocarcinoma cell lines. Additional experiments are needed to determine their involvement, if any, in cell proliferation and tumor progression.