Virus-specific CD8+ T lymphocytes play a key role in the initial reduction of peak viremia during acute viral infections, but display signs of increasing dysfunction and exhaustion under conditions of chronic antigen persistence. It has been suggested that virus-specific CD8+ T cells with a “polyfunctional” profile, defined by the capacity to secrete multiple cytokines or chemokines, are most competent in controlling viral replication in chronic HIV-1 infection. We used HIV-1 infection as a model of chronic persistent viral infection to investigate the process of exhaustion and dysfunction of virus-specific CD8+ T cell responses on the single-epitope level over time, starting in primary HIV-1 infection.
Methods and Findings
We longitudinally analyzed the polyfunctional epitope-specific CD8+ T cell responses of 18 patients during primary HIV-1 infection before and after therapy initiation or sequence variation in the targeted epitope. Epitope-specific CD8+ T cells responded with multiple effector functions to antigenic stimulation during primary HIV-1 infection, but lost their polyfunctional capacity in response to antigen and up-regulated programmed death 1 (PD-1) expression with persistent viremic infection. This exhausted phenotype significantly decreased upon removal of stimulation by antigen, either in response to antiretroviral therapy or by reduction of epitope-specific antigen load in the presence of ongoing viral replication, as a consequence of in vivo selection of cytotoxic T lymphocyte escape mutations in the respective epitopes. Monofunctionality increased in CD8+ T cell responses directed against conserved epitopes from 49% (95% confidence interval 27%–72%) to 76% (56%–95%) (standard deviation [SD] of the effect size 0.71), while monofunctionality remained stable or slightly decreased for responses directed against escaped epitopes from 61% (47%–75%) to 56% (42%–70%) (SD of the effect size 0.18) (p < 0.05).
These data suggest that persistence of antigen can be the cause, rather than the consequence, of the functional impairment of virus-specific T cell responses observed during chronic HIV-1 infection, and underscore the importance of evaluating autologous viral sequences in studies aimed at investigating the relationship between virus-specific immunity and associated pathogenesis.
Marcus Altfeld and colleagues suggest that the exhaustion of virus-specific CD8+ T cells during chronic HIV infection likely results from the persistence of antigen.
Viruses are small infectious agents responsible for many human diseases, including acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Like other viruses, the human immunodeficiency virus 1 (HIV-1; the cause of AIDS) enters human cells and uses the cellular machinery to replicate before bursting out of its temporary home. During the initial stage of HIV infection, a particular group of cells in the human immune system, CD8+ T cells, are thought to be important in controlling the level of the virus. These immune system cells recognize pieces of viral protein called antigens displayed on the surface of infected cells; different subsets of CD8+ T cells recognize different antigens. When a CD8+ T cell recognizes its specific antigen (or more accurately, a small part of the antigen called an “epitope”), it releases cytotoxins (which kill the infected cells) and cytokines, proteins that stimulate CD8+ T cell proliferation and activate other parts of the immune system. With many viruses, when a person first becomes infected (an acute viral infection), antigen-specific CD8+ T cells completely clear the infection. But with HIV-1 and some other viruses, these cells do not manage to remove all the viruses from the body and a chronic (long-term) infection develops, during which the immune system is constantly exposed to viral antigen.
Why Was This Study Done?
In HIV-1 infections (and other chronic viral infections), virus-specific CD8+ T cells lose their ability to proliferate, to make cytokines, and to kill infected cells as patients progress to the long-term stages of infection. That is, the virus-specific CD8+ T cells gradually lose their “effector” functions and become functionally impaired or “exhausted.” “Polyfunctional” CD8+ T cells (those that release multiple cytokines in response to antigen) are believed to be essential for an effective CD8+ T cell response, so scientists trying to develop HIV-1 vaccines would like to stimulate the production of this type of cell. To do this they need to understand why these polyfunctional cells are lost during chronic infections. Is their loss the cause or the result of viral persistence? In other words, does the constant presence of viral antigen lead to the exhaustion of CD8+ T cells during chronic HIV infection? In this study, the researchers investigate this question by looking at the polyfunctionality of CD8+ cells responding to several different viral epitopes at various times during HIV-1 infection, starting very early after infection with HIV-1 had occurred.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers enrolled 18 patients recently infected with HIV-1 and analyzed their CD8+ T cell responses to specific epitopes at various times after enrollment using a technique called flow cytometry. They found that the epitope-specific CD8+ cells produced several effector proteins after antigen stimulation during the initial stage of HIV-1 infection, but lost their polyfunctionality in the face of persistent viral infection. The CD8+ T cells also increased their production of programmed death 1 (PD-1), a protein that has been shown to be associated with the functional impairment of CD8+ T cells. Some of the patients began antiretroviral therapy during the study, and the researchers found that this treatment, which reduced the viral load, reversed CD8+ T cell exhaustion. Finally, the appearance in the patients' blood of viruses that had made changes in the specific epitopes recognized by the CD8+ T cells to avoid being killed by these cells, also reversed the exhaustion of the T cells recognizing these particular epitopes.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that the constant presence of HIV-1 antigen causes the functional impairment of virus-specific CD8+ T cell responses during chronic HIV-1 infections. Treatment with antiretroviral drugs reversed this functional impairment by reducing the amount of antigen in the patients. Similarly, the appearance of viruses with altered epitopes, which effectively reduced the amount of antigen recognized by those epitope-specific CD8+ T cells without reducing the viral load, also reversed T cell exhaustion. These results would not have been seen if the functional impairment of CD8+ cells were the cause rather than the result of antigen persistence. By providing new insights into how the T cell response to viruses evolves during persistent viral infections, these findings should help in the design of vaccines against HIV and other viruses that cause chronic viral infections.
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Read a related PLoS Medicine Research in Translation article
Learn more from the researchers' Web site, the Partners AIDS Research Center
Wikipedia has a page on cytotoxic T cells (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
Information is available from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on HIV infection and AIDS
HIV InSite has comprehensive information on all aspects of HIV/AIDS, including a detailed article on the immunopathogenesis of HIV infection
NAM, a UK registered charity, provides information about all aspects of HIV and AIDS, including a fact sheet on the stages of HIV infection and on the immune response to HIV
Information is available from Avert, an international AIDS charity, on all aspects of HIV/AIDS, including information on the stages of HIV infection