Objective: HIV infection induces a progressive depletion of CD4 T cells. We showed that NKp44L, a cellular ligand for an activating natural killer (NK) receptor, is expressed on CD4 T cells during HIV infection and is correlated with both CD4 cell depletion and increase in viral load. NKp44LCD4 T cells are highly sensitive to the NK lysis activity. In contrast, HIV-infected CD4 T cells are resistant to NK killing, suggesting that HIV-1 developed strategies to avoid detection by the host cell immunity.
Design: To assess whether viral protein can affect NKp44L expression, using Nef-deficient virus as well as a panel of recombinant vaccinia viruses expressing all HIV-1 viral proteins was tested. The involvement of Nef in the downmodulation of NKp44L was determined using defined mutants of Nef. Functional consequences of Nef on NK-cell recognition were evaluated by either 51Cr-release assays and degranulation assays in presence of anti-NKp44L mAb.
Results: We observed that during HIV-1 infection, noninfected CD4 T cells exclusively expressed NKp44L, and demonstrate that Nef mediates NKp44L intracellular retention in HIV-infected cells. This has functional consequences on HIV-infected CD4 T cells recognition by NK cells, causing a decreased susceptibility to NK cytotoxicity. Furthermore, experiments in presence of neutralizing NKp44L mAb revealed that Nef inhibitory effect on NK cytotoxicity mainly depends on the NKp44L pathway.
Conclusion: This novel escape mechanism could explain the resistance of HIV-infected cells to NK lysis and as a result play a key role in maintaining the HIV reservoir by avoiding recognition by NK cells.