Background: An attenuated immunodeficiency virus has been long considered innocuous. Nevertheless, converging data suggest that low levels of viral replication can still provoke AIDS. Pathogenesis of these attenuated infections is not understood.
Objectives: To determine the pathogenicity of a long-term attenuated infection and to delineate T-cell dynamics during such an infection.
Methods: This is a cross-sectional study of 12 rhesus macaques infected with SIV Delta nef for 8 years. We evaluated apoptosis (annexin V), activation (HLA-DR, Ki67), and newly generated T cells (TCR excision circle: TREC).
Results: Infection with SIV Delta nef induced pathological CD4 T-cell depletion after 8 years of infection. Virus replication and CD8 T-cell activation positively correlated with the rate of disease progression. The frequency of TREC within CD8+CD45RA+ cells increased in SIV Delta nef-infected animals compared to age-matched non-infected controls. Moreover, in the cohort of infected animals, TREC+CD45RA+CD4+ T-cell counts correlated strongly with non-progression to AIDS. The animal with the lowest rate of disease progression exhibited a 115-fold increase in TREC+CD45RA+CD4+ T-cell counts compared to age-matched non-infected controls. In contrast, the animal showing the fastest rate of progression to AIDS displayed 600-fold lower TREC+CD45RA+CD4+ T-cell counts compared to age-matched non-infected controls.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that the thymus plays a major role in the pathogenesis of an attenuated SIV infection and that a sustained thymic output could maintain CD4 T-cell homeostasis in the context of low viral loads.