Cell-to-cell transmission is an efficient mechanism to disseminate human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) and human T cell lymphotropic virus type 1 (HTLV-1). However, it has been challenging to quantify the level of cell-to-cell transmission because the virus-producing cells cannot be easily distinguished from infected target cells. We have previously described replication-dependent vectors that can quantify infection events in cocultured cells. These vectors contain an antisense-oriented promoter and reporter gene interrupted by a sense-oriented intron from the human gamma-globin gene. This strategy prevents expression of the reporter gene in the transfected cells but permits its expression in target cells after infection. However, the gamma-globin intron is not efficiently removed by splicing in the aforementioned vectors, thereby reducing the level of reporter gene expression after transduction into target cells. Here, we used two approaches to improve the replication-dependent vectors. First, we improved the splicing events that remove the gamma-globin intron by optimizing the intron insertion site within the reporter gene. Second, we improved the packaging of the spliced RNA without the gamma-globin intron by targeting the intron-containing RNA via microRNA 30 (miR30)-based short hairpin RNAs. Using two optimized fluorescent reporter vectors and flow cytometry, we determined that multiply HIV-1-infected cells were generated at a higher frequency in coculture than in cell-free infection; furthermore, this increase was dependent upon viruses bearing HIV-1 Env. Compared with previously described vectors, these improved vectors can quantify the infection in lymphocytes and in primary cells with a higher sensitivity and allow the detection and quantitation of multiply infected cells, providing better tools to study retroviral cell-mediated infection.
Importance: The human-pathogenic retroviruses HTLV-1 and HIV-1 can be transmitted more efficiently in vivo via direct contact of infected cells with healthy target cells than through cell-free virion-mediated infection. Despite its importance, cell-to-cell transmission has been difficult to quantify because the previously infected cells and the newly infected cells are mixed together in the same culture. In the current study, we generated vectors that are significantly improved over the previously described replication-dependent vectors. As a result, these improved vectors can efficiently detect and quantify cell-to-cell transmission or new infection events in cells in mixed culture. These luciferase- or fluorescence protein-based reporter vectors can be used to quantify and study HIV-1 or HTLV-1 cell-mediated infection in a simple one-step transfection/infection assay.
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