Background: The success of antiretroviral therapy is known to be compromised by drug-resistant HIV-1 at frequencies detectable by conventional bulk sequencing. Currently, there is a need to assess the clinical consequences of low-frequency drug resistant variants occurring below the detection limit of conventional genotyping. Sensitive detection of drug-resistant subpopulations, however, requires simple and practical methods for routine testing.
Methodology: We developed highly-sensitive and simple real-time PCR assays for nine key drug resistance mutations and show that these tests overcome substantial sequence heterogeneity in HIV-1 clinical specimens. We specifically used early wildtype virus samples from the pre-antiretroviral drug era to measure background reactivity and were able to define highly-specific screening cut-offs that are up to 67-fold more sensitive than conventional genotyping. We also demonstrate that sequencing the mutation-specific PCR products provided a direct and novel strategy to further detect and link associated resistance mutations, allowing easy identification of multi-drug-resistant variants. Resistance mutation associations revealed in mutation-specific amplicon sequences were verified by clonal sequencing.
Significance: Combined, sensitive real-time PCR testing and mutation-specific amplicon sequencing provides a powerful and simple approach that allows for improved detection and evaluation of HIV-1 drug resistance mutations.