Background: The relationship of elevated T cell activation to altered T cell differentiation profiles, each defining features of HIV-1 infection, has not been extensively explored. We hypothesized that anti-retroviral suppression of T cell activation levels would lead to alterations in the T cell differentiation of total and HIV-1 specific CD8+ T cell responses among recently HIV-1 infected adults.
Methodology/principal findings: We performed a longitudinal study simultaneously measuring T cell activation and maturation markers on both total and antigen-specific T cells in recently infected adults: prior to treatment; after the initiation of HAART; and after treatment was halted. Prior to treatment, HIV-1 Gag-specific CD8+ T cells were predominantly of a highly activated, intermediate memory (CD27+CD28-) phenotype, while CMV pp65-specific CD8+ T cells showed a late memory (CD27-CD28-), low activation phenotype. Participants with the highest fraction of late memory (CD27-CD28-) HIV-1-specific CD8+ T cells had higher CD4+ T cell counts (rho = +0.74, p = 0.004). In turn, those with the highest fraction of intermediate memory (CD27+ CD28-) HIV-1 specific CD8+ T cells had high total CD8+ T cell activation (rho = +0.68, p = 0.01), indicating poorer long-term clinical outcomes. The HIV-1 specific T cell differentiation profile was not readily altered by suppression of T cell activation following HAART treatment.
Conclusions/significance: A more differentiated, less activated HIV-1 specific CD8+ T cell response may be clinically protective. Anti-retroviral treatment initiated two to four months after infection lowered T cell activation but had no effect on the differentiation profile of the HIV-1-specific response. Intervention during the first month of acute infection may be required to shift the differentiation phenotype of HIV-1 specific responses to a more clinically favorable profile.