Background: Spontaneous control of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection has been documented in a minority of HIV-infected individuals. The mechanisms behind this outcome remain largely unknown, and a better understanding of them will likely influence future vaccine strategies.
Methods: HIV-specific T cell and antibody responses as well as host genetics were examined in untreated HIV-infected patients who maintain comparatively low plasma HIV RNA levels (hereafter, controllers), including those with levels of < 50 RNA copies/mL (elite controllers, n = 64), those with levels of 50-2000 copies/mL (viremic controllers, n = 60); we also examined HIV-specific T cell and antibody responses as well as host genetics for patients with levels of >10,000 copies/mL (chronic progressors, n = 30).
Results: CD8+ T cells from both controller groups preferentially target Gag over other proteins in the context of diverse HLA class I alleles, whereas responses are more broadly distributed in persons with progressive infection. Elite controllers represent a distinct group of individuals who have significantly more CD4 and CD8 T cells that secrete interferon-gamma and interleukin-2 and lower levels of HIV-neutralizing antibodies. Individual responses were quite heterogeneous, and none of the parameters evaluated was uniquely associated with the ability to control viremia.
Conclusions: Elite controllers are a distinct group, even when compared to persons with low level viremia, but they exhibit marked genetic and immunologic heterogeneity. Even low-level viremia among HIV controllers was associated with measurable T cell dysfunction, which has implications for current prophylactic vaccine strategies.