Gut-derived bacterial toxins impair memory CD4+ T cell mitochondrial function in HIV-1 infection

J Clin Invest. 2022 May 2;132(9):e149571. doi: 10.1172/JCI149571.


People living with HIV (PLWH) who are immune nonresponders (INRs) are at greater risk of comorbidity and mortality than are immune responders (IRs) who restore their CD4+ T cell count after antiretroviral therapy (ART). INRs have low CD4+ T cell counts (<350 c/μL), heightened systemic inflammation, and increased CD4+ T cell cycling (Ki67+). Here, we report the findings that memory CD4+ T cells and plasma samples of INRs from several cohorts are enriched in gut-derived bacterial solutes p-cresol sulfate (PCS) and indoxyl sulfate (IS) that both negatively correlated with CD4+ T cell counts. In vitro PCS or IS blocked CD4+ T cell proliferation, induced apoptosis, and diminished the expression of mitochondrial proteins. Electron microscopy imaging revealed perturbations of mitochondrial networks similar to those found in INRs following incubation of healthy memory CD4+ T cells with PCS. Using bacterial 16S rDNA, INR stool samples were found enriched in proteolytic bacterial genera that metabolize tyrosine and phenylalanine to produce PCS. We propose that toxic solutes from the gut bacterial flora may impair CD4+ T cell recovery during ART and may contribute to CD4+ T cell lymphopenia characteristic of INRs.

Keywords: AIDS/HIV; Apoptosis; Infectious disease; Mitochondria; T cell development.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Toxins*
  • CD4 Lymphocyte Count
  • CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes
  • HIV Infections*
  • HIV-1*
  • Humans
  • Lymphopenia
  • Mitochondria


  • Bacterial Toxins

Supplementary concepts

  • T-Lymphocytopenia