Background: T-cell immunity is thought to play an important role in controlling HIV infection, and is a main target for HIV vaccine development. HIV-specific central memory CD8(+) and CD4(+) T cells producing IFNgamma and IL-2 have been associated with control of viremia and are therefore hypothesized to be truly protective and determine subsequent clinical outcome. However, the cause-effect relationship between HIV-specific cellular immunity and disease progression is unknown. We investigated in a large prospective cohort study involving 96 individuals of the Amsterdam Cohort Studies with a known date of seroconversion whether the presence of cytokine-producing HIV-specific CD8(+) T cells early in infection was associated with AIDS-free survival time.
Methods and findings: The number and percentage of IFNgamma and IL-2 producing CD8(+) T cells was measured after in vitro stimulation with an overlapping Gag-peptide pool in T cells sampled approximately one year after seroconversion. Kaplan-Meier survival analysis and Cox proportional hazard models showed that frequencies of cytokine-producing Gag-specific CD8(+) T cells (IFNgamma, IL-2 or both) shortly after seroconversion were neither associated with time to AIDS nor with the rate of CD4(+) T-cell decline.
Conclusions: These data show that high numbers of functional HIV-specific CD8(+) T cells can be found early in HIV infection, irrespective of subsequent clinical outcome. The fact that both progressors and long-term non-progressors have abundant T cell immunity of the specificity associated with low viral load shortly after seroconversion suggests that the more rapid loss of T cell immunity observed in progressors may be a consequence rather than a cause of disease progression.