Comprehensive analysis of frequency and phenotype of T regulatory cells in HIV infection: CD39 expression of FoxP3+ T regulatory cells correlates with progressive disease

J Virol. 2011 Feb;85(3):1287-97. doi: 10.1128/JVI.01758-10. Epub 2010 Nov 3.


There are conflicting data about the frequency and role of regulatory T cells (Tregs) during the course of HIV infection. Peripheral blood of a large cohort of HIV-infected patients (n = 131) at different stages of disease, including 15 long-term nonprogressors and 21 elite controllers, was analyzed to determine the frequency and phenotype of Tregs, defined as CD4(+), CD25(high), CD127(low), FoxP3(high) cells. A significantly increased relative frequency of Tregs within the CD4(+) compartment of HIV(+) patients compared to that of healthy controls (P < 0.0001) was observed. Additionally, the relative frequency of Tregs directly correlated with HIV viral load and inversely with CD4(+) counts. However, the absolute Treg number was reduced in HIV-infected patients versus healthy controls (P < 0.0001), with the exception of elite controllers (P > 0.05). The loss of absolute Treg numbers coincided with rising markers of immune activation (P < 0.0006). The initiation of antiviral therapy significantly increased absolute Treg numbers (P < 0.0031). We find that the expression of CD39, a newly defined ectonucleotidase with immunomodulatory functions on Tregs, correlated with progressive HIV disease, HIV viral load, and immune activation. Of note, when tested in peripheral blood mononuclear cells of healthy volunteers, the in vitro capacity to suppress T-cell proliferation was limited to CD4(+), CD25(high), CD39(+) T cells. Interestingly, Tregs of elite controllers exhibited not only the highest expression of CCR5, CTLA-4, and ICOS but also the lowest level of CD39. The data presented here reconcile the seemingly contradictory results of previous studies looking at Tregs in HIV and highlight the complexity of Treg-mediated immunoregulation during human viral infections.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Antigens, CD / analysis*
  • Apyrase / analysis*
  • Disease Progression
  • Female
  • Forkhead Transcription Factors / analysis*
  • HIV Infections / immunology*
  • HIV Infections / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • T-Lymphocytes, Regulatory / chemistry
  • T-Lymphocytes, Regulatory / immunology*
  • Viral Load


  • Antigens, CD
  • FOXP3 protein, human
  • Forkhead Transcription Factors
  • Apyrase
  • CD39 antigen