Background: Immunosuppressive treatment in transplant patients frequently causes infectious complications with cytomegalovirus (CMV). The extent of CMV replication can be followed by a number of diagnostic methods. There is, however, no simple diagnostic tool to assess the quality of the cellular antiviral immune response of an individual patient. This would be of particular importance for therapy decisions, as patients with detectable virus load do not necessarily develop CMV-related disease. Using a rapid whole blood assay, the frequencies of CMV-reactive CD4 and CD8 T cells were followed after renal transplantation to characterize their relative contribution in the containment of CMV infection.
Methods: T cells from transplant patients ands healthy control persons were stimulated with CMV antigen in vitro. Based on specific cellular activation and induction of intracellular cytokines, the frequency of CMV-reactive CD4 and CD8 T cells was determined using flow cytometry. Viral load quantified using the "hybrid-capture" assay.
Results: The absence of CMV complications in long-term transplant recipients is reflected by stable virus-specific T-cell frequencies, which do not differ from healthy CMV-positive controls. In contrast, during the first months after transplantation, clinical symptoms are preceded by a decrease in CMV-reactive CD4 T-cell frequencies and an increase in CMV load.
Conclusions: The individual immune response and CMV replication are critically balanced and can be characterized by assesing both viral load and antiviral T cells. Our experimental design allows the identification of patients with sufficient, insufficient, or absent T-cell activity and can serve as diagnostic tool to facilitate decisions on antiviral therapy.