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The viral load reduction seen in patients with late stage HIV infection treated with the protease inhibitor, ritonavir, is accompanied by increases in the in vitro proliferative responses generated by PBMC. The present study was undertaken to investigate which lymphocyte subsets generated these responses and the effects of therapy on cytokine production. Lymphoproliferation following phytohaemagglutinin (PHA) stimulation was studied by thymidine incorporation, and production of IL-2, interferon-gamma (IFN-γ) and IL-4 was assessed by ELISA in 12 patients receiving ritonavir and seven receiving placebo in the context of randomized, blinded clinical trials. CD4+ cell-depleted and CD8+ cell-depleted subsets were obtained from PBMC by immunomagnetic bead depletion. At week 4 of therapy a two-fold or greater increase in proliferative responses was observed in 9/12 subjects receiving therapy, compared with 0/7 receiving placebo. Similarly there was a significant increase in IL-2 and IFN-γ production of 2·7-fold (P = 0·02) and 1·7-fold (P = 0·03), respectively, in the treatment group compared with those receiving placebo. No change in IL-4 production was observed. Despite these increases, cytokine responses post-therapy were still reduced compared with both healthy controls and asymptomatic HIV-infected subjects. Increases in proliferative response and IL-2 production were greater in the CD8+ cell-depleted population than in the CD4+ cell-depleted population, whereas increases in IFN-γ production were derived from the CD4+ cell-depleted population.