Background: CD8+ T-cell counts usually increase soon after infection with HIV, whereas CD4+ cell counts decrease. The result of these changes in T-cell subpopulation subsets in most HIV-infected subjects is inversion of the CD4 : CD8 ratio from greater than 1.0 typical of uninfected persons to less than 1.0 after infection.
Subjects: Six HIV-infected individuals were identified in whom the CD4 : CD8 ratio remained normal throughout follow-up (4.0-11.25 years). They all maintained levels of CD4+ cells above 500 x 10(6)/l and had never received antiretroviral therapy. Because HIV-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) have been implicated in control of HIV during the asymptomatic phase of disease, we screened these individuals for the presence of HIV-specific CTL activity.
Methods: CTL activity was assessed in freshly isolated peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) and in phytohaemagglutinin-stimulated interleukin-2 expanded cell lines established from PBMC. Cytotoxicity to HIV-1 env, gag, pol and nef gene products was surveyed in a 4 h 51Cr-release assay using autologous Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) transformed B cells infected with vaccinia constructs expressing each of these HIV genes. The immunodominant CTL epitope and MHC class I antigen restriction specificity of HIV-specific CTL was mapped when present. Plasma viral load was assessed by branched DNA assay. Attempts were made to isolate virus from these individuals by the PBMC coculture assay.
Results: None of the six immunologically normal HIV-infected (INHI) subjects exhibited direct HIV-specific CTL activity in their freshly isolated PBMC compared with 16 (47%) out of 34 HIV disease progressors (P = 0.03, chi2 test) and one out of 10 seronegative subjects. Three of the six INHI subjects had detectable memory HIV-specific precursor CTL (pCTL) activity in in vitro-activated T-cell lines compared with 25 (73.5%) out of 34 HIV-1 disease progressors and in none out of 10 seronegative individuals. All three INHI subjects had Gag-specific pCTL, and none had reverse transcriptase-specific pCTL. Plasma HIV viraemia in all six INHI subjects was below the level of detection by branched DNA assay (< 500 copies/ml). Virus could not be isolated from four of these individuals despite multiple attempts to do so by PBMC coculture assays.
Conclusion: Direct HIV-specific CTL activity mediated by activated circulating PBMC was undetectable in six INHI individuals under conditions where it is frequently observed in HIV disease progressors. Despite the absence of cells activated for killing HIV-infected targets in the circulation of these individuals, they appeared able to control their HIV infection by maintaining normal levels of CD4 and CD8 cells and low viral load.