Background: In people with HIV on antiretroviral therapy (ART), the relationship between HIV-specific immune responses and measures of HIV persistence is uncertain.
Methods: We evaluated 101 individuals on suppressive ART in the AIDS Clinical Trials Group A5321 cohort. Cell-associated (CA) HIV DNA and RNA levels and HIV antibody concentrations and avidity to Env/p24 were measured longitudinally at years 1, 4, and 6-15 after ART initiation. Plasma HIV RNA by single copy assay and T-cell responses (IFN-γ ELISPOT) against multiple HIV antigens were measured at the last time point.
Results: HIV antibody levels declined significantly with increasing time on ART (19%/year between year 1 and 4). HIV antibody levels correlated with T-cell responses to HIV Pol (r = 0.28, P = 0.014) and to Nef/Tat/Rev (r = 0.34; P = 0.002). HIV antibody and T-cell responses were positively associated with HIV DNA levels; for example, at the last time point (median 7 years on ART), r = 0.35 for antibody levels and HIV DNA (P < 0.001); r = 0.23 for Nef/Tat/Rev-specific T-cell responses and HIV DNA (P = 0.03). Neither antibody nor T-cell responses correlated with cell-associated HIV RNA or plasma RNA by single copy assay.
Conclusions: In individuals on long-term ART, HIV-specific antibody and T-cell responses correlate with each other and with HIV DNA levels. The positive correlation between HIV immune responses and HIV DNA implies that the immune system is sensing, but not clearing, infected cells, perhaps because of immune dysfunction. Measuring immune responses to HIV antigens may provide insight into the impact of reservoir-reducing strategies.