HIV-infected immunological nonresponders (InRs) patients fail to show satisfactory CD4+ T-cell recovery despite virologically effective HAART. We propose that NKp44L, the cellular ligand of an activating natural killer (NK) receptor, expressed only on uninfected bystander CD4+ T cells from HIV-1 infected patients, could play a major role in this phenomenon by sensitizing these cells to NK killing.
Phenotype and multifunctional status of CD4+ T cells, especially the subsets expressing and not expressing NKp44L, were characterized for HIV-infected patients receiving HAART for at least 2 years, during which their viral load remained less than 40 copies/ml; 53 were InRs (CD4 cell count always <350 cells/μl), and 82 immunological responders (CD4 cell count always ≥350 cells/μl). Flow cytometry determined NKp44L expression in association with specific markers of proliferation, maturation, activation, homeostasis, and intracellular cytokine production. Degranulation of NKp44+ determined the functional capacity of NK cells.
InRs exhibited high levels of NKp44L+CD4+ T cells. Compared with NKp44L negative cells, the frequency of naive CD45RA+CCR7+ T cells expressing NKp44L fell (P < 0.001) and their proliferative capacity grew. Moreover, apoptosis and a unique ability to produce multiple cytokines (IL-2, IFN-γ, and TNF-α) without or after phytohemagglutinin or anti-CD3/CD28 stimulation distinguished NKp44L+ T cells.
InR status is associated to a significant expansion of highly differentiated, multifunctional and apoptotic CD4+ T cells expressing NKp44L. This could explain a rapid CD4+ T-cell turnover in InR preventing immune recovery. These data suggest a new target for developing therapeutic strategies to prevent NKp44L expression and then stimulating immune recovery in InRs.