Wednesday 30 September 2020

Phenotypic analysis of the unstimulated in vivo HIV CD4 T cell reservoir


Measuring the levels of proteins in the immune cells of people receiving anti-retroviral drugs to treat HIV reveals which of these cells the virus is hiding in.

There is no cure for the human immunodeficiency virus infection (HIV), but anti-retroviral drugs allow infected people to keep the virus at bay and lead a normal life. These drugs suppress the growth of HIV, but they do not eliminate the virus. If the treatment is interrupted, the virus bounces back within weeks in most individuals. HIV can start growing again because it hides within particular immune cells, called T cells. These infected cells stay in the infected person’s body for their whole life in a dormant or “latent” state, and represent the main barrier to an HIV cure. If these cells could be eliminated or prevented from producing more virus without daily treatment, then HIV could be cured. The fact that HIV hides inside T cells has been known for a long time, but it has remained unclear exactly what kinds of T cells the virus prefers.

One challenge to characterizing latently-infected cells is that there is no single protein made by them that is not also made by uninfected T cells. The latently-infected T cells are also very rare: HIV mainly attaches to a protein called CD4, but only one in about a million T cells with CD4 contain the virus. To figure out which CD4-carrying T cells in a patient sample are latently infected, the cells are extracted from the patient’s body and ‘reactivated’ so the virus will start growing again. Unfortunately, the mixture of drugs used to reactivate the T cells changes the cells and the proteins they are producing, which obscures the features the latently-infected T cells had before reactivation.

Neidleman, Luo et al. developed a new approach to trace the infected, reactivated T cells back to their state before reactivation. Using computational methods and a laboratory technique called mass cytometry, the levels of approximately 40 different proteins were measured in millions of T cells from people living with HIV. These experiments provided an ‘atlas’ of overall T cell features onto which each reactivated cell could be mapped. The population of latently-infected T cells exhibited common features among all the participants. Selecting a few of the most abundant proteins on the surface of the latently-infected cells allowed these cells to be physically separated from all other immune cells.

In the future, this relatively pure population of infected T cells could be used to study how HIV can persist for many decades. The ‘map’ of these cells’ features will provide a valuable resource for HIV researchers and might enable the discovery of new drugs to eliminate the latent T cells.

Posted by Dr. Tim Sandle, Pharmaceutical Microbiology Resources (

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