Background: Highly active antiretroviral therapy can effectively decrease the levels of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) virions in peripheral plasma and seminal fluid of infected men. Whether the genital tract of HIV-1-infected men who are receiving highly active antiretroviral therapy and who have no detectable virus in the peripheral plasma harbors replication-competent virus is not known.
Methods: We collected peripheral-blood and semen samples from seven men with HIV-1 infections who were receiving highly active antiretroviral therapy and who had no detectable viral RNA (fewer than 50 copies per milliliter) in plasma and analyzed the samples for cell-associated proviral DNA using a quantitative polymerase-chain-reaction assay. Replication-competent viruses were evaluated by cell-coculture assays. Proviral DNA and replication-competent virus obtained from peripheral-blood and seminal cells were also analyzed by sequencing relevant viral genes.
Results: Despite the long-term suppression of HIV-1 RNA in the plasma of the seven men, proviral DNA was detected in seminal cells in four. Replication-competent viruses were recovered from peripheral-blood cells in three men and from the seminal cells in two of these three men. The viruses recovered from the seminal cells had no genotypic mutations suggestive of resistance to antiretroviral drugs and were macrophage-tropic, a feature that is characteristic of HIV-1 strains that are capable of being sexually transmitted.
Conclusions: In HIV-1-infected men who are receiving highly active antiretroviral therapy and who have no detectable levels of viral RNA in plasma the virus may be present in seminal cells and therefore may be capable of being transmitted sexually.