Objective: To ascertain whether delaying the initiation of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) compromises functional immune reconstitution in HIV-1 infection in persons who regain 'normal' CD4 T-cell counts after suppressive antiretroviral therapies.
Design: Prospective open-label study carried out at two University-affiliated HIV-outpatient clinics in the USA.
Subjects and methods: Response to immunization was used as a model for in vivo functional immune competence in 29 HIV-1 infected patients with CD4 T-cell counts > 450 x 106 cells/l and HIV-RNA < 400 copies/ml for > 12 months after HAART and nine HIV-1 seronegative controls. After immunization with tetanus toxoid, diphtheria-toxoid, and keyhole limpet hemocyanin, immune response scores (IRS) were calculated using postimmunization antibody concentrations, lymphocyte proliferation, and delayed-type hypersensitivity responses to vaccine antigens.
Results: Despite normal numbers of circulating CD4 T-cells, the CD4 T-cell nadir before HAART initiation predicted the immune response to immunization (rho = 0.5; P < 0.005) while current CD4 T-cell count did not. Likewise, CD4 T-lymphocyte expression of the co-stimulatory molecule CD28 was also an independent predictor of response to immunization (rho = 0.5; P < 0.005).
Conclusions: Even among persons who controlled HIV replication and normalized CD4 T-cell counts with HAART, pretreatment CD4 T-cell count and numbers of circulating CD4+CD28+ T-cells at immunization, but not current CD4 T-cell count, predict the ability to respond to vaccination. Delaying the initiation of HAART in chronic HIV-1 infection results in impaired functional immune restoration despite normalization of circulating CD4 T-cell numbers.