Background: To assess HIV burden in both acellular and cellular fractions of semen in men with different levels of blood plasma HIV RNA by a cross-sectional study.
Patients: Fifty-two HIV-1-seropositive men (21 receiving antiretroviral therapy) with CD4 cell counts ranging from 1 to 1170 x 10(6)/l.
Methods: Semen was separated into seminal plasma and fractions enriched in motile spermatozoa or non-spermatozoal cells. HIV RNA was quantified by the HIV-Monitor technique (Roche) in blood plasma, seminal plasma and spermatozoa fractions. HIV DNA or infectious virions in cellular fractions were detected by either PCR or qualitative viral culture.
Results: HIV RNA was detected in 86.5% of seminal plasma specimens and in 14.6% of spermatozoa fractions; HIV DNA was detected in 57.1% of non-spermatozoal cell fractions. HIV RNA levels in blood plasma and seminal plasma were correlated (r5 = 0.56, P < 0.0001, Spearman's rank test). A majority of men had lower levels in seminal plasma than in blood plasma: one-third had HIV-positive seminal cell fractions. However, 20 men (38.5%) with HIV RNA levels in seminal plasma (median: 4.65 log10 copies/ml) comparable to or higher than those in blood plasma had all HIV-positive non-spermatozoal cells or spermatozoa fractions with a high frequency of positive cultures.
Conclusion: A high frequency of men had detectable HIV in semen. We identified a subpopulation demonstrating high levels of HIV RNA in seminal plasma, comparable to or higher than those in blood plasma, frequently associated with a substantial viral shedding in seminal cells, raising the possibility of viral production within the genital tract and suggesting heterogeneity in the potential of HIV sexual transmission among infected men.