In chronic HIV infection, antiretroviral therapy–induced normalization of CD4+ T cell counts (immune reconstitution [IR]) is associated with a decreased incidence of opportunistic diseases. However, some individuals remain at risk for opportunistic diseases despite prolonged normalization of CD4+ T cell counts. Deficient Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-specific CD4+ T cell function may explain the occurrence of EBV-associated opportunistic malignancy—such as primary central nervous system (PCNS) lymphoma—despite recovery of absolute CD4+ T cell counts.
Methods and Findings
Absolute CD4+ T cell counts and EBV-specific CD4+ T cell-dependent interferon-γ production were assessed in six HIV-positive individuals prior to development of PCNS lymphoma (“cases”), and these values were compared with those in 16 HIV-infected matched participants with no sign of EBV-associated pathology (“matched controls”) and 11 nonmatched HIV-negative blood donors. Half of the PCNS lymphoma patients fulfilled IR criteria (defined here as CD4+ T cell counts ≥500/μl blood). EBV-specific CD4+ T cells were assessed 0.5–4.7 y prior to diagnosis of lymphoma. In 0/6 cases versus 13/16 matched controls an EBV-specific CD4+ T cell response was detected (p = 0.007; confidence interval for odds ratio [0–0.40]). PCNS lymphoma patients also differed with regards to this response significantly from HIV-negative blood donors (p < 0.001, confidence interval for odds ratio [0–0.14]), but there was no evidence for a difference between HIV-negative participants and the HIV-positive matched controls (p = 0.47).
Irrespective of absolute CD4+ T cell counts, HIV-positive patients who subsequently developed PCNS lymphoma lacked EBV-specific CD4+ T cell function. Larger, ideally prospective studies are needed to confirm these preliminary data, and clarify the impact of pathogen-specific versus surrogate marker-based assessment of IR on clinical outcome.
In a case-control study from the Swiss HIV cohort, Hess and colleagues report that T-helper responses against Epstein-Barr virus are specifically absent in patients developing CNS lymphoma.
AIDS causes disease by inactivating the body's immune responses. Most severely affected are the white blood cells known as T lymphocytes, particularly the CD4+ T cells that recognize infection and enable other cells of the immune system to respond. Advanced HIV infection, marked by very low numbers of CD4+ cells, is associated with a variety of infections and tumors that are rarely seen in people with intact immune systems. People with advanced HIV who receive highly active antiretroviral treatment (HAART) tend to have increases in their CD4+ cell counts and lose their susceptibility to these so-called opportunistic infections and cancers. For several common opportunistic infections, it is considered safe to discontinue preventive antibiotics after a patient's total CD4+ cell count has returned to normal levels on HAART. Some treated individuals, however, will develop these conditions even after their CD4+ cell counts have returned to normal levels. The reason this happens is unclear.
Why Was This Study Done?
For several years, scientists have speculated that susceptibility to a given opportunistic infection might be due not simply to low total CD4+ cells, but to loss of the specific CD4+ cells that recognize the infection in question. If this theory is correct, then those individuals who develop an opportunistic condition after their total CD4+ cell counts return to normal might be missing the specific cells that respond to the microbe causing the condition. The researchers wanted to test this theory in HIV patients with a brain tumor called primary central nervous system lymphoma (PCNS lymphoma). The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which causes mononucleosis in the general population, has been shown to be a cause of PCNS lymphoma in people with AIDS.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers studied patients who developed PCNS lymphoma while enrolled in the Swiss HIV Cohort, an ongoing study that has enrolled more than 14,000 people. A large cohort was needed to address this question because PCNS lymphoma is uncommon, and indeed only six patients with a confirmed diagnosis were identified. Because they had been followed as part of the cohort study, these patients had given blood samples that could be tested in retrospect. Three of these patients had low CD4+ cell counts prior to lymphoma diagnosis and three had normal CD4+ cell counts, but CD4 responses specifically against EBV were absent or very low in all six patients before they were diagnosed with PCNS lymphoma. The researchers also studied a comparison group of cohort participants with comparable CD4+ cell counts but no PCNS lymphoma, and found that 13/16 of those participants did have CD4 responses to EBV.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These results support the idea that the action of EBV-specific CD4+ cells, rather than a given level of total CD4+ cells, is needed to prevent PCNS lymphoma. Because only a small number of cases were identified, this must be considered a preliminary result. Given the rarity of PCNS lymphoma, however, especially in people receiving HAART, it seems unlikely that a larger cohort will be available in the near future to provide a more definitive conclusion. Based on this result, it may be useful to perform similar studies of other opportunistic infections. If a “gap” in the CD4+ cell response can be shown to increase the risk of a specific condition, it may become appropriate to test specific CD4 responses before deciding to discontinue preventive treatment as CD4+ cell counts increase on HAART.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040096.
Read the accompanying Perspective by Mark Jacobson, MD
The Swiss Cohort Study Web site contains information on related research projects
The UCSF Center for HIV Information's HIV InSite includes resources on HIV immunology and opportunistic infections