Persistence of intracellular HIV-1 mRNA correlates with HIV-1-specific immune responses in infected subjects on stable HAART

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ObjectiveTo determine if low level, persistent, HIV-1 replication within specific immune cells contributes to HIV-1-specific immune responsiveness.DesignWe analyzed 59 HIV-1-infected subjects on stable highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) therapy (not including zidovudine) with suppressed plasma viremia (< 400 copies/ml) for phenotypic and lymphoproliferative correlates of immune function.MethodsPeripheral blood mononuclear cells were collected for immunophenotyping, lymphoproliferative assays, and simultaneous immunophenotyping/ultrasensitive in situ hybridization. Plasma was collected for plasma viral load as determined by the Ultra Sensitive Roche Amplicor RT–PCR. Descriptive statistics (mean and SD, median, first and third quartiles) were determined for all variables in two groups defined as having persistent viral replication present or absent. The two-sided Wilcoxon test (continuity correction, 0.5) was used to compare lymphocyte phenotypes, lymphoproliferative assay responses, intracellular gag-pol mRNA, lowest CD4 counts and CD4% of these two groups.ResultsHIV-1 replication in CD4, CD45RO memory T lymphocytes persists in spite of undetectable plasma viral load. Patients (n = 24) with persistent intracellular expression of HIV-1 mRNA (> 0.3%) showed significant in vitro proliferative responses to HIV-1 p24 (stimulation index ≥ 10) compared to patients (n = 35) without persistent intracellular replication. The group with persistent HIV-1 replication in cells showed no significant response to the recall antigen tetanus toxoid but a trend toward higher responses to pathogen antigens. There were no differences between the groups in the prevalence of AIDS or occurrences of opportunistic infections; however, the high viral persistence group was more HAART experienced (P < 0.05).ConclusionsThese results suggest that HIV-1-specific immune responses correlate with evidence of ongoing HIV-1 replication.

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