Objective: Several pieces of evidence indicate that HIV-infected adults undergo premature aging. The effect of HIV and antiretroviral therapy (ART) exposure on the aging process of HIV-infected children may be more deleterious since their immune system coevolves from birth with HIV.
Design: Seventy-one HIV-infected (HIV+), 65 HIV-exposed-uninfected (HEU), and 56 HIV-unexposed-uninfected (HUU) children, all aged 0-5 years, were studied for biological aging and immune senescence.
Methods: Telomere length and T-cell receptor rearrangement excision circle levels were quantified in peripheral blood cells by real-time PCR. CD4 and CD8 cells were analysed for differentiation, senescence, and activation/exhaustion markers by flow cytometry.
Results: Telomere lengths were significantly shorter in HIV+ than in HEU and HUU children (overall, P < 0.001 adjusted for age); HIV+ ART-naive (42%) children had shorter telomere length compared with children on ART (P = 0.003 adjusted for age). T-cell receptor rearrangement excision circle levels and CD8 recent thymic emigrant cells (CD45RACD31) were significantly lower in the HIV+ than in control groups (overall, P = 0.025 and P = 0.005, respectively). Percentages of senescent (CD28CD57), activated (CD38HLA-DR), and exhausted (PD1) CD8 cells were significantly higher in HIV+ than in HEU and HUU children (P = 0.004, P < 0.001, and P < 0.001, respectively). Within the CD4 cell subset, the percentage of senescent cells did not differ between HIV+ and controls, but programmed cell death receptor-1 expression was upregulated in the former.
Conclusions: HIV-infected children exhibit premature biological aging with accelerated immune senescence, which particularly affects the CD8 cell subset. HIV infection per se seems to influence the aging process, rather than exposure to ART for prophylaxis or treatment.