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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.
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.
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.
Expansion and altered features of HIV-specific cTfh cells are maintained during ART and may be driven by persistent HIV antigen expression.
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.