Background: HIV-1-infected elite controllers or suppressors (ES) maintain undetectable viral loads (< 50 copies/mL) without antiretroviral therapy. The mechanisms of suppression are incompletely understood. Modulation of HIV-1 replication by miRNAs has been reported, but the role of small RNAs in ES is unknown. Using samples from a well-characterized ES cohort, untreated viremic patients, and uninfected controls, we explored the PBMC miRNA profile and probed the relationships of miRNA expression, CD4+ T-cell counts, and viral load.
Results: miRNA profiles, obtained using multiple acquisition, data processing, and analysis methods, distinguished ES and uninfected controls from viremic HIV-1-infected patients. For several miRNAs, however, ES and viremic patients shared similar expression patterns. Differentially expressed miRNAs included those with reported roles in HIV-1 latency (miR-29 family members, miRs -125b and -150). Others, such as miR-31 and miR-31*, had no previously reported connection with HIV-1 infection but were found here to differ significantly with uncontrolled HIV-1 replication. Correlations of miRNA expression with CD4+ T-cell count and viral load were found, and we observed that ES with low CD4+ T-cell counts had miRNA profiles more closely related to viremic patients than controls. However, expression patterns indicate that miRNA variability cannot be explained solely by CD4+ T-cell variation.
Conclusions: The intimate involvement of miRNAs in disease processes is underscored by connections of miRNA expression with the HIV disease clinical parameters of CD4 count and plasma viral load. However, miRNA profile changes are not explained completely by these variables. Significant declines of miRs-125b and -150, among others, in both ES and viremic patients indicate the persistence of host miRNA responses or ongoing effects of infection despite viral suppression by ES. We found no negative correlations with viral load in viremic patients, not even those that have been reported to silence HIV-1 in vitro, suggesting that the effects of these miRNAs are exerted in a focused, cell-type-specific manner. Finally, the observation that some ES with low CD4 counts were consistently related to viremic patients suggests that miRNAs may serve as biomarkers for risk of disease progression even in the presence of viral suppression.