Mechanisms of Endogenous HIV-1 Reactivation by Endocervical Epithelial Cells

J Virol. 2020 Apr 16;94(9):e01904-19. doi: 10.1128/JVI.01904-19. Print 2020 Apr 16.


Pharmacological HIV-1 reactivation to reverse latent infection has been extensively studied. However, HIV-1 reactivation also occurs naturally, as evidenced by occasional low-level viremia ("viral blips") during antiretroviral treatment (ART). Clarifying where blips originate from and how they happen could provide clues to stimulate latency reversal more effectively and safely or to prevent viral rebound following ART cessation. We studied HIV-1 reactivation in the female genital tract, a dynamic anatomical target for HIV-1 infection throughout all disease stages. We found that primary endocervical epithelial cells from several women reactivated HIV-1 from latently infected T cells. The endocervical cells' HIV-1 reactivation capacity further increased upon Toll-like receptor 3 stimulation with poly(I·C) double-stranded RNA or infection with herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). Notably, acyclovir did not eliminate HSV-2-induced HIV-1 reactivation. While endocervical epithelial cells secreted large amounts of several cytokines and chemokines, especially tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), CCL3, CCL4, and CCL20, their HIV-1 reactivation capacity was almost completely blocked by TNF-α neutralization alone. Thus, immunosurveillance activities by columnar epithelial cells in the endocervix can cause endogenous HIV-1 reactivation, which may contribute to viral blips during ART or rebound following ART interruption.IMPORTANCE A reason that there is no universal cure for HIV-1 is that the virus can hide in the genome of infected cells in the form of latent proviral DNA. This hidden provirus is protected from antiviral drugs until it eventually reactivates to produce new virions. It is not well understood where in the body or how this reactivation occurs. We studied HIV-1 reactivation in the female genital tract, which is often the portal of HIV-1 entry and which remains a site of infection throughout the disease. We found that the columnar epithelial cells lining the endocervix, the lower part of the uterus, are particularly effective in reactivating HIV-1 from infected T cells. This activity was enhanced by certain microbial stimuli, including herpes simplex virus 2, and blocked by antibodies against the inflammatory cytokine TNF-α. Avoiding HIV-1 reactivation could be important for maintaining a functional HIV-1 cure when antiviral therapy is stopped.

Keywords: HIV reactivation; endocervix; female genital tract; herpes simplex virus; human immunodeficiency virus; innate immunity; latency.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Acyclovir / pharmacology
  • Anti-Retroviral Agents / therapeutic use
  • Antiviral Agents / pharmacology
  • CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes / virology
  • Cell Line
  • Cervix Uteri / pathology
  • Epithelial Cells / pathology
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Viral / drug effects
  • HIV Infections / virology
  • HIV Seropositivity / drug therapy
  • HIV-1 / pathogenicity
  • HIV-1 / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Primary Cell Culture
  • Viremia / drug therapy
  • Virus Activation / drug effects*
  • Virus Latency / drug effects
  • Virus Replication / drug effects*
  • Virus Replication / physiology


  • Anti-Retroviral Agents
  • Antiviral Agents
  • Acyclovir