Human CMV establishes lifelong persistence after primary infection. Chronic CMV infection is associated with intermittent viral reactivation inducing high frequencies of CD4+ T lymphocytes with potent antiviral and helper properties. Primary CMV infection is characterized by an intense viral replication lasting for several months. The impact of this prolonged exposure to high Ag loads on the functionality of CD4+ T cells remains incompletely understood. In pregnant women with primary CMV infection, we observed that CMV-specific CD4+ T lymphocytes had a decreased capacity to proliferate and to produce IL-2. A very large proportion of CMV-specific CD4+ T cells had downregulated the expression of CD28, a costimulatory molecule centrally involved in the production of IL-2. Unexpectedly, both CD28+ and CD28+ CD4+ T cells produced low levels of IL-2. This defective production of IL-2 was part of a larger downregulation of cytokine production. Indeed, CMV-specific CD4+ T cells produced lower amounts of IFN-γ and TNF-α and showed lower functional avidity during primary as compared with chronic infection. Increased programmed death-1 expression was observed in CD28+ CMV-specific CD4+ T cells, and programmed death-1 inhibition increased proliferative responses. These results indicate that primary CMV infection is associated with the exhaustion of CMV-specific CD4+ T cells displaying low functional avidity for viral Ags.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT01251744.