Role of cysteine and glutathione in HIV infection and other diseases associated with muscle wasting and immunological dysfunction

FASEB J. 1997 Nov;11(13):1077-89. doi: 10.1096/fasebj.11.13.9367343.


The combination of abnormally low plasma cystine and glutamine levels, low natural killer (NK) cell activity, skeletal muscle wasting or muscle fatigue, and increased rates of urea production defines a complex of abnormalities that is tentatively called "low CG syndrome." These symptoms are found in patients with HIV infection, cancer, major injuries, sepsis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and to some extent in overtrained athletes. The coincidence of these symptoms in diseases of different etiological origin suggests a causal relationship. The low NK cell activity in most cases is not life-threatening, but may be disastrous in HIV infection because it may compromise the initially stable balance between the immune system and virus, and trigger disease progression. This hypothesis is supported by the coincidence observed between the decrease of CD4+ T cells and a decrease in the plasma cystine level. In addition, recent studies revealed important clues about the role of cysteine and glutathione in the development of skeletal muscle wasting. Evidence suggests that 1) the cystine level is regulated primarily by the normal postabsorptive skeletal muscle protein catabolism, 2) the cystine level itself is a physiological regulator of nitrogen balance and body cell mass, 3) the cyst(e)ine-mediated regulatory circuit is compromised in various catabolic conditions, including old age, and 4) cysteine supplementation may be a useful therapy if combined with disease-specific treatments such as antiviral therapy in HIV infection.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • Colitis, Ulcerative / immunology
  • Colitis, Ulcerative / physiopathology
  • Crohn Disease / immunology
  • Crohn Disease / physiopathology
  • Cysteine / metabolism*
  • Cystine / blood
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / immunology
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / physiopathology
  • Glutamine / blood
  • Glutathione / metabolism*
  • HIV Wasting Syndrome / immunology
  • HIV Wasting Syndrome / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology
  • Models, Biological
  • Muscle, Skeletal / metabolism
  • Muscular Diseases / immunology
  • Muscular Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Sepsis / immunology
  • Sepsis / physiopathology
  • Wasting Syndrome / immunology
  • Wasting Syndrome / physiopathology*
  • Wounds and Injuries / immunology
  • Wounds and Injuries / physiopathology


  • Glutamine
  • Cystine
  • Glutathione
  • Cysteine