Background: Untreated HIV infection leads to alterations in HIV-specific CD4+ T cells including increased expression of co-inhibitory receptors (IRs) and skewing toward a T follicular helper cell (Tfh) signature. However, which changes are maintained after suppression of viral replication with antiretroviral therapy (ART) is poorly known.
Methods: We analyzed blood CD4+ T cells specific to HIV and comparative viral antigens in ART-treated people using a cytokine-independent activation-induced marker assay alone or in combination with functional readouts.
Findings: In intra-individual comparisons, HIV-specific CD4+ T cells were characterized by a larger fraction of circulating Tfh (cTfh) cells than CMV- and HBV-specific cells and preferentially expressed multiple IRs and showed elevated production of the Tfh cytokines CXCL13 and IL-21. In addition, HIV-specific cTfh exhibited a predominant Th1-like phenotype and function when compared to cTfh of other specificities, contrasting with a reduction in Th1-functions in HIV-specific non-cTfh. Using longitudinal samples, we demonstrate that this distinct HIV-specific cTfh profile was induced during chronic untreated HIV infection, persisted on ART and correlated with the translation-competent HIV reservoir but not with the total HIV DNA reservoir.
Interpretation: Expansion and altered features of HIV-specific cTfh cells are maintained during ART and may be driven by persistent HIV antigen expression.
Funding: This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the FRQS AIDS and Infectious Diseases Network.
Keywords: Antiretroviral therapy (ART); HIV; HIV-specific CD4(+) T cells; T Follicular helper T cells.
Copyright © 2020 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.