Skip Navigation LinksHome > August 24, 2010 - Volume 24 - Issue 13 > Immune activation, apoptosis, and Treg activity are associat...
doi: 10.1097/QAD.0b013e32833c93ce
Basic Science

Immune activation, apoptosis, and Treg activity are associated with persistently reduced CD4+ T-cell counts during antiretroviral therapy

Piconi, Stefaniaa,*; Trabattoni, Dariac,*; Gori, Andreab; Parisotto, Serenac; Magni, Carloa; Meraviglia, Paolaa; Bandera, Alessandrab; Capetti, Amedeoa; Rizzardini, Giulianoa; Clerici, Marioc,d

Free Access
Article Outline
Collapse Box

Author Information

aDepartments of Infectious Diseases of the Luigi Sacco Hospital, Milano, Italy

bSan Gerardo, Hospital, Monza, Italy

cChair of Immunology, University of Milano, Milano, Italy

dFondazione Don C. Gnocchi, IRCCS, Milano, Italy.

*S. Piconi and D.T. contributed equally to the writing of this article.

Received 21 December, 2009

Revised 5 May, 2010

Accepted 27 May, 2010

Correspondence to Mario Clerici, MD, Chair of Immunology, University of Milano, Department of Biomedical Sciences and Technologies, Via F.lli Cervi 93; 20090 Segrate (Milano), Italy. Tel: +39 02 50319679; fax: +39 02 50319677; e-mail:

Collapse Box


Background: Persistently reduced CD4+ T-lymphocyte counts in the face of undetectable HIV viremia are seen in a sizable percentage of HIV-infected patients undergoing antiretroviral therapy (ART). We analyzed the immune correlates of this phenomenon.

Materials and methods: Sixty-seven HIV-infected patients with undetectable viremia (<50 copies/μl) after more than 7 years of ART were enrolled in the study and divided into two groups (CD4 cell counts >500 cells/μl or <500 cells/μl). Duration of HIV infection (>16 years) was comparable. Peripheral blood mononuclear cell were stimulated with gag+env or with cytomegalovirus peptides. Activated T cells (Ki67+), Treg lymphocytes (CD4+/CD25high/Foxp3+), divided into naive and activated cells based on PD1 expression, interleukin (IL)-10 and transforming growth factor (TGF)-β production, annexin V, activation of caspases 8 and 9, Toll-like receptor (TLR)2 and TLR4 expression on immune cells, and plasma lipopolysaccharide (LPS) concentration were analyzed.

Results: CD4+/Ki67+ T cells; plasma LPS; total, naive, and activated Treg; TLR2-expressing and TLR4-expressing Treg; IL-10 production; and early and late apoptotic CD4 T cells, were significantly increased in patients with undetectable viremia and CD4 cell counts less than 500 cells/μl after more than 7 years of ART. As previously shown, CD4 nadir were also lower in these individuals. Immune activation, LPS concentration, Treg, and degree of apoptosis were negatively correlated with CD4 cell counts.

Conclusion: Lack of CD4 recovery in individuals in whom ART suppresses HIV replication is associated with complex immune alterations. Immune activation, likely driven by altered gut permeability and resulting in augmented Treg activity could play a pivotal role in this process.

Back to Top | Article Outline


Antiretroviral therapy (ART) changed the natural history of HIV infection. Notably, though, despite optimal suppression of HIV replication, restoration of CD4+ T-cell counts is not always achieved in ART-treated individuals. Several factors seem to be involved in the lack of CD4+ T-cell recovery which is observed in 20–30% of ART-treated patients. Thus, residual viral replication [1], altered thymic function [2], older age [3], immuneactivation [4,5], apoptosis, and viral coinfections [6,7] were all proposed to play a significant role in this phenomenon. On the contrary, basal viral load [8,9], genetic factors [10], younger age [11,12], and the percentage of naive cells [13] were reported to have a positive influence on the restoration of CD4+ T-cell levels.

The importance of proper immune reconstitution is underlined by data obtained in a French cohort of HIV-infected patients showing that, once therapy is initiated, mortality becomes comparable with that of HIV-seronegative individuals only if CD4+ T cells reach physiological values [14]. In the Athena cohort, CD4+ T-cell normalization (800 cells/μl) was achievable only after several years of ART and was not obtained in HIV-infected individuals who started therapy with CD4 cell count less than 350 cells/μl. Moreover, HIV-infected ART-treated individuals older than 50 years at initiation of ART, and in whom viremic spikes (>1000 copies/μl) were observed, showed a more limited increase in CD4+ T cells and reached an early plateau at CD4 levels lower than normal values [15]. According to these results, CD4+ T cells nadir influences not only the possibility to normalize cell counts in response to therapy but also affects the time needed to obtain this goal. Similar conclusions were reported by another study performed in patients stratified on the basis of their CD4+ T-cell counts before initiation of therapy [16]. Results showed that the time between ART initiation and achievement of a CD4+ T-cell count more than 500 cells/μl was significantly longer in individuals with lower baseline lymphocyte counts. Finally, other data indicate that CD4+ T-cell nadir correlates with, and is predictive for, responses to vaccines, suggesting that this parameter directly influences the functionality of the immune system [17].

Several studies indicate that immune activation plays a key role in the pathogenesis of HIV. Notably, recent results showed that a degree of CD4+ and CD8+ T-cell immune activation persists over time during ART even in the presence of fully satisfactory suppression of HIV replication [18]. A definite consensus on which are the clinical consequences, or the causes, of immune activation in HIV infection is nevertheless still lacking. The most recent pathogenic hypothesis postulates that the main cause of immune activation is the destruction of CD4+ T cells in the gastrointestinal mucosa observed in the earliest phases of the disease [19]. Several evidence indicates that the resulting mucosal alterations allow gut bacterial translocation into the peripheral blood, resulting in Toll-like receptor (TLR)-mediated immune-activation. T-lymphocyte homeostasis and the activation of the immune system are controlled by several mechanisms; among them regulatory T cells play a crucial role as they produce immunosuppressive cytokines [interleukin (IL)-10, transforming growth factor (TGF-β)] and induce apoptosis of antigen-specific cells. All these mechanisms, proteins, and cell populations could play a role in impeding CD4+ T-cell recovery in ART-treated HIV infected individuals with suppressed HIV viremia [20–23].

In an attempt to shed light on the relationship between immune activation and lack of CD4+ T-cell-recovery during virologically successful ART we performed extensive immunological analyses in a population of HIV-infected, ART-treated individuals in whom therapy did or did not result in immune recovery. Results indicated that a complex pattern of immune alterations is present in ART-treated patients with persistently reduced CD4+ T-lymphocyte counts.

Back to Top | Article Outline

Materials and methods

Study population

Sixty-seven HIV-infected patients with suppressed viremia (<50 copies/μl) (50 men and 17 women; mean age = 49.21 years, range = 33–71 years) were enrolled in the study. All patients were treated with combined ART according to currently accepted guidelines (NRTI + PI or NRTI + NNRTI). HIV plasma viremia had been below the threshold of detection for at least 7 years in all patients. Patients who in the past had undergone changes in their therapy because of simplification or toxicity were included in the study. Patients were subdivided into two groups on the basis of the CD4 cell counts (>500 CD4+ T cells/μl, n = 32, and <500 CD4+ T cells/μl, n = 35). Duration of HIV infection (>16 years) and of ART (>7 years) was comparable between the two groups. All individuals were enrolled by the Departments of Infectious Diseases of the Luigi Sacco Hospital in Milano and of the San Gerardo Hospital in Monza; written informed consent was obtained before enrolment.

Back to Top | Article Outline
Blood sample collection and peripheral blood mononuclear cell separation

Whole blood was collected by venipuncture in Vacutainer tubes containing EDTA (Becton Dickinson, Rutherford, New Jersey, USA). Plasma was stored and peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) were separated on lymphocyte separation medium (Cedarlane Laboratories Limited, Hornby, Ontario, Canada) and washed twice in phosphate-buffered saline (PBS) (PBI, Milan, Italy). The number of viable leukocytes was determined by trypan blue exclusion test.

Back to Top | Article Outline
Stimulation of peripheral blood mononuclear cell

PBMC were incubated for 18 h in the presence/absence of a pool of gag+env peptides (HIV) [24] or cytomegalovirus (CMV) protein (Microbics Biosystems inc., Toronto, Ontario, Canada). For cytokine analyses, 10 μg/ml Brefeldin A (Sigma-Aldrich, St. Louis, Missouri, USA) was added to cell cultures during the last 6 h. In some experiments PD1 or PD-L1 neutralizing antibodies (eBiosciences, San Diego, California, USA) were added to the cultures to evaluate the PD1–PD-L1 pathway activity.

Back to Top | Article Outline
Ki67 evaluation

PBMC washed in PBS and stained for CD4PE mAb (Beckman-Coulter, Fullerton, California, USA) for 15 min at room temperature in the dark were then fixed in 1% paraformaldehyde (PFA; Sigma-Aldrich) for 15 min at 4°C. After washing, cells were resuspended in 0.5% saponin (Sigma-Aldrich) and stained for Ki67 or mouse fluorescein isohiocyanate (FITC)-coupled IgG1 isotype control (BD Biosciences, San Diego, California, USA). Cells were finally incubated for 45 min at 4°C in the dark, washed, and fixed in 1% PFA.

Back to Top | Article Outline
Plasma lipopolysaccharide concentration

Lipopolysaccharide (LPS) concentration was measured on plasma samples with the LAL Chromogenic Endopoint Assay (Hycult Biotechnology, Uden, the Netherlands). Samples, prepared according to manufacture's instructions, were plated in a 96-well plate, followed by LAL reagent. After 45-min incubation at room temperature, absorbance was measured at 405 nm with a spectrophotometer. LPS concentration was expressed in EU/ml and calculated relatively to standard curve.

Back to Top | Article Outline
Identification of T-regulatory lymphocytes

PBMC were incubated with anti-CD4, anti-CD25, and anti-PD-1 for 15 min at room temperature. The intracellular detection of PD-1 and FoxP3 was performed following the manufacture's protocol (eBioscience). Intracellular or surface costaining of PD-1 and intracellular FoxP3 was performed by flow cytometry on CD4+CD25bright gated T-cell CD4+ T cells/μl.

Back to Top | Article Outline
Evaluation of Toll-like receptor expression

PBMC resuspended in fresh medium were stained for CD14, CD4, CD25, Foxp3, TLR2, and TLR4 monoclonal antibodies. After a 15-min incubation at room temperature in the dark, cells were washed and fixed in 1% PFA.

Back to Top | Article Outline
Intracellular cytokine concentration

Antigen-stimulated PBMC were stained for CD4 expression. After a 15-min incubation at room temperature in the dark, cells were fixed in 1% PFA, incubated for 15-min at 4°C in the dark, and permeabilized with 0.5% saponin (Sigma-Aldrich). TGF-β and IL-10 monoclonal antibodies were then added. After a 30-min incubation at 4°C in the dark, cells were washed and fixed 1% PFA in PBS.

Back to Top | Article Outline
Identification of early apoptotic, late apoptotic, and necrotic cells

Stimulated PBMC resuspended in D-PBS (Euroclone, Siziano, Pavia, Italy) were stained with CD4, annexin V, and 7AAD monoclonal antibodies (Beckman-Coulter). After 20-min incubation at room temperature, cells were washed in cold D-PBS and resuspended in D-PBS.

Back to Top | Article Outline
Detection of activated caspases 8 and 9

The FLICA Apoptosis detection kit (Immunochemistry Technologies, Bloomington, Minnesota, USA) was used to analyze caspases. FLICA reagents were prepared according to manufacture's instructions and added to the resuspended cells; the mix was then incubated for 1 h at 37°C under 5%CO2. After incubation cells were washed twice with buffer. The cell pellet was resuspended in wash buffer and stained with CD4 and CD8 monoclonal antibodies for 30 min in ice. Finally, cells were stained with propidium iodide and analyzed by flow cytometry.

Back to Top | Article Outline
Monoclonal antibodies (mAbs)

The following mAbs were used: anti-CD4 (mouse IgG1 isotype) Phycoerythrin-Cy7 (PECy7), anti-CD14 (mouse IgG2a isotype), all coupled to R-Phycoerythrin-Cyanine 5 (PECy5), anti-CD4 (mouse IgG1 isotype) R-Phycoerythrin (PE), anti-CD14 (mouse IgG2a isotype), all coupled to FITC, anti-CD25 (mouse IgG2a) coupled to phycoerythrin-Texas red (ECD) (Beckman-Coulter); anti-CD178 (mouse IgG1 isotype) PE (BioLegend, San Diego, California, USA), anti-B7H1 PE (mouse IgG1 isotype), anti-TLR4 PE (mouse IgG2a isotype), anti-PD1 PE (mouse IgG1 isotype), anti-TLR2 FITC (mouse IgG2a isotype) (eBioscience); recombinant protein annexin V PE (Bender MedSystem, Burlingame, California, USA). The intracellular staining detection mAb used were anti-Foxp3 (rat IgG2a isotype) PECy5, anti-PD1 FITC (mouse IgG1 isotype) (eBioscience); anti human TGF-β PE (mouse IgG1 isotype) (BioLegend, San Diego, California, USA); anti human IL-10 FITC (mouse IgG2b isotype) (R&D System); anti-human Ki67 FITC (mouse IgG1 isotype) (BD Biosciences).

Back to Top | Article Outline
Cytometric analysis

Cytometry was performed using a FC500 flow cytometer (Beckman-Coulter) equipped with a double 15-mW argon ion laser operating at 456 and 488 nm interfaced with Intercorp computer. For each analysis 20 000 events were acquired and gated on CD4 and CD14 expression and SSC (side scatter) properties. Green fluorescence from FITC (FL1) was collected through a 525-nm band-pass filter, orange-red fluorescence from R-PE (FL2) was collected through a 575-nm band-pass filter, Texas red fluorescence from ECD (FL3) was collected through a 613-nm band-pass filter, red fluorescence from PECy5 and APC (FL4) were collected through a 670-nm band-pass filter, far red fluorescence from PECy7 (FL5) was collected through a 770-nm band-pass filter. Data were collected using linear amplifiers for forward and SSC and logarithmic amplifiers for FL1, FL2, FL3, FL4, and FL5.

Back to Top | Article Outline
Statistical analysis

Data were analyzed according to standard statistical tests; t tests were performed to compare groups. Procedures were based on parametric analyses. The rank-transformed variables were analyzed if distributions were not normal. To account for different patient's characteristics between groups, an analysis of variance was run through a general linear model, including sex and age as independent variables. Possible relationships were evaluated using Pearson's correlation test.

Back to Top | Article Outline


Study population

Sixty-seven HIV-infected, ART-treated individuals with undetectable viremia (<50 copies/μl) were enrolled in the study. Patients were divided in two groups on the basis of the CD4 cell counts reached after at least 7 years of ART. HIV-infected individuals in whom ART was not associated with CD4+ T-cell recovery were characterized by a lower CD4 nadir (P = 0.01). As per inclusion criteria, lower absolute numbers (P < 0.001) and percentages (P = 0.002) of CD4+ T cells were seen in patients with less than 500 CD4+ T cells/μl. The epidemiologic characterization of the two groups of individuals is presented in Table 1.

Table 1
Table 1
Image Tools
Back to Top | Article Outline
CD4+ T lymphocytes activation

T lymphocytes activation was evaluated by Ki67 expression. The percentage of CD4+/Ki67+ T cells was significantly augmented in individuals with CD4+ cell counts less than 500 cells/μl compared with individuals with more than 500 CD4+ T cells/μl. This difference was detected both in unstimulated cells and upon stimulation with HIV (basal: P = 0.032; HIV: P = 0.027) (Fig. 1a).

Fig. 1
Fig. 1
Image Tools
Back to Top | Article Outline
Plasma lipopolysaccharide concentration

Plasma LPS concentration is an index of microbial translocation; augmented LPS concentration is associated with alterations of the gut permeability. LPS plasma concentration was significantly higher in individuals with CD4+ cell counts less than 500 cells/μl compared with individuals with more than 500 CD4+ T cells/μl (P < 0.001) (Fig. 1b).

Back to Top | Article Outline
Regulatory T cells

Total (CD4+CD25brightFoxp3+), naive (CD4+CD25brightFoxp3+ intracellular PD1+), and activated (CD4+CD25brightFoxp3+ extracellular PD1+) regulatory T cells were analyzed on whole blood samples. All the populations examined were increased in patients with CD4+ cell counts less than 500 cells/μl compared with individuals with more than 500 CD4+ T cells/μl. These differences reached statistical significance in the case of total (P = 0.004) and naive (P = 0.040) Treg cells (Fig. 2a).

Fig. 2
Fig. 2
Image Tools

The three different populations of Treg cells were subsequently analyzed after stimulation of PBMC with HIV or CMV. HIV-stimulated, but not CMV-stimulated total Treg cells were significantly increased in patients with CD4+ cell counts less than 500 cells/μl compared to patients with more than 500 CD4+ T cells/μl (P = 0.039) (Fig. 2b).

Back to Top | Article Outline
Toll-like receptor2-expressing and Toll-like receptor4-expressing Treg

TLR2 and TLR4 expression was analyzed on Treg cells, as TLR-mediated activation plays a pivotal role in regulating the immunosuppressive functions of these cells. Notably, TLR4 is the ligand for LPS. Results showed that TLR2-expressing as well as TLR4-expressing and HIV-stimulated Treg were significantly increased in patients with CD4+ cell counts less than 500 cells/μl compared with patients with more than 500 CD4+ T cells/μl (HIV-stimulated:TLR2: P = 0.037; TLR4: P = 0.048) (Fig. 2c, d).

Back to Top | Article Outline
Immunosuppressive cytokines

IL-10 and TGF-β production by CD4+ T lymphocytes was evaluated upon stimulation of PBMC with HIV and CMV. HIV-specific IL-10+/CD4+ and TGF-β+/CD4+ T cells were augmented in patients with CD4+ cell counts less than 500 cells/μl in comparison to patients with CD4 cell counts more than 500 cells/μl (IL-10: P = 0.037) (Fig. 3). No differences were observed in CMV-stimulated PMBC.

Fig. 3
Fig. 3
Image Tools
Back to Top | Article Outline
Viable, early apoptotic, and late apoptotic T cells

Viable, early and late apoptotic CD4+ T cells were evaluated in basal condition and after stimulation with HIV and CMV. Viable cells were identified as CD4+/annexin Vneg/7AADneg T cells; cells in early step of apoptosis as CD4+/annexin V+/7AADneg T cells; and cells in late apoptosis as CD4+/annexin V+/7AAD+ T cells. Both in basal conditions and upon HIV stimulation viable CD4+ T cells were diminished, whereas early apoptotic and late apoptotic CD4+ T cells were augmented in individuals with CD4+ T-cell counts less than 500 cells/μl (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4
Fig. 4
Image Tools

Because activated Treg express PD1, and the PD1/PDL1 pathway is of fundamental importance in inducing apoptosis of CD4 T cells, we analyzed this pathway adding to the cultures antibodies able to block this interaction. PD1 blocking resulted in an increase of viable and a decrease of early and late apoptotic cells in individuals with CD4+ T-cell counts less than 500 cells/μl, whereas no effects were observed in patients with more than 500 CD4+ T cells/μl (data not shown).

Back to Top | Article Outline
Caspases 8 and 9 activation in CD4+ T cells

Activation of caspases 8 and 9 is associated with apoptosis. The activation of these caspases was evaluated in CD4+ T cells in basal condition and after HIV and CMV stimulation. As shown in Table 2, expression of caspases 8 and 9 was augmented in cells of patients with CD4+ T-cell counts less than 500 cells/μl. These differences reached statistical significance for HIV-specific and CMV-specific CD4+/caspase 9+ cells (HIV: P = 0.044; CMV: P = 0.026).

Table 2
Table 2
Image Tools
Back to Top | Article Outline

Correlations between CD4+ T cells, lymphocyte activation, LPS concentration, Treg and apoptosis were analyzed. Significant negative correlations were observed between CD4+ T-cell counts and HIV-specific CD4+/Ki67+ cells (Pearson correlation: P = 0.01); plasma LPS concentration (Pearson correlation: P = 0.01); total, naive, and activated Treg (total and naive Treg: Pearson correlation: P = 0.01; activated Treg: Pearson correlation: P = 0.04); and unstimulated and HIV-specific late apoptotic CD4+ T cells (Pearson correlation: P = 0.01) (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5
Fig. 5
Image Tools
Back to Top | Article Outline


Normalization of CD4+ T cells is a pivotal target in the management of HIV infection, as the likelihood of developing non-AIDS comorbidities is associated with the duration of the period during which CD4+ T cells are lower than 500 cells/μl (DAD) [25,26]. The FIRST study also showed that lower CD4+ T cell counts on treatment are associated with a higher immediate risk of cardiovascular and renal diseases and cancer [27–29]. The implication of this study, which was confirmed by later observations, is that even patients with suppressed viremia are at risk for significant morbidity and mortality if their CD4+ T cells are reduced [30].

Our aim was to analyze possible relationships between CD4 nadir and the lack of CD4 recovery in HIV-infected patients in whom ART did not result in normalization of CD4+ T lymphocytes despite suppressing HIV replication, and to identify immune mechanisms involved in these interactions. Data herein indicate that defective CD4 cell counts recovery in ART-treated patients with suppressed viremia is associated with lower CD4 nadir, gut microbial translocation and immune activation, augmented percentage and activity of Treg lymphocytes, and higher susceptibility to apoptosis. Our results are in agreement with earlier studies reporting a correlation between CD4 nadir and increases in CD4+ T cells during ART, and identify novel mechanisms possibly responsible for lack of CD4+ T cells during ART. Our working hypothesis is that the complex pattern of immune dysfunctions observed in patients with incomplete immune reconstitution causes low CD4 cell counts; this argument could nevertheless be turned upside down: lack of CD4 recovery could be the cause, and not the consequence of immune impairment. This problem does not offer any easy solution; immunological analyses performed during the first year of therapy in a large group of patients, some of whom will not show significant increases in CD4 cell counts, will be needed to settle this question.

Several evidence suggests that the accelerated immunological ageing and age-associated complications, including cardiovascular, renal, and liver diseases and malignancies, seen in HIV infection, could be explained by the chronic immune activation that characterizes this disease [18–20]. Notably, the non-AIDS comorbidities that are more common in patients with persistently reduced CD4+ T cells were recently suggested to be mainly associated with immune activation [29–32]. The underlying causes of the immune activation seen in HIV infection are still not totally clarified. Interestingly, the importance of chronic immune activation in HIV pathogenesis was confirmed in mouse studies showing that this process results in severe immune dysfunctions and opportunistic infections, even in absence of viral replication activation [32].

One of the most validated and solid hypotheses to explain HIV-associated immune activation stems from the observation that acute HIV infection is associated with a rapid and probably irreversible destruction of the extensive CD4+ T-cell population that reside in gut-associated lymphoid tissues [19–22]. Loss of mucosal integrity results in impaired local cellular immunity and translocation of microbial products, including LPS, which in turn contributes to persistent inflammation through TLR activation [19–22]. Because LPS ligates TLR4, a molecule expressed on a variety of immune cells [33,34] the LPS-TRL4 axis has been postulated as being responsible for HIV-associated immune activation [35,36]. The lamina propria macrophages can induce Treg differentiation and limit the generation of pro-inflammatory immune responses. Spontaneous IL-10 production by lamina propria macrophages controls their reactivity to various TLR ligands and promotes the generation of tolerogenic IL-10-producing T cells and, when combined with TGF-β, also of Foxp3 Treg cells. In mouse models [37] it was demonstrated that lamina propria macrophages counteracted the ability of IL-17-producing T cells. These findings emphasize the complexity of the intestinal APC network that differentially modulates mucosal and systemic immune activation [38]. Given the deleterious effects of sustained inflammatory responses, the immune system goes to great lengths to prevent such responses. The main mechanism involved in the maintenance of immune homeostasis involves Treg cells, a subset of CD4+ T lymphocytes that suppress local T-cell activation via direct and indirect mechanisms [39]. There are conflicting results regarding the role of Treg in the immunopathogenesis of HIV disease. Some data indicate that these cells prevent the development of effective antiviral immune responses and are therefore harmful [40,41], whereas others have proposed that Treg play a beneficial role by preventing chronic immune activation [42–44]. Treg express TLR, and their activity, expansion, and function are likely dependent on TLR-mediated signaling [44,45]. We observed significantly increased percentages of HIV-specific TLR2- and TLR4-expressing Treg cells in patients in whom ART does not increases CD4+ T lymphocytes. Notably, serum concentrations of LPS were significantly increased as well in these same patients, in whom a high degree of immune activation was detected. The presence of significant negative correlations between CD4+ T lymphocytes, immune activation, microbial translocation, and CD4 cell counts indicate that these parameters likely play a pathogenic role in these patients.

Recent data indicating that Treg cells can be further subdivided into two populations based on the intra (naïve)- or extra (activated)-cellular expression of the PD1 molecule [45–50], stimulated us to examine such populations in our patients. All populations of Treg cells were indeed augmented in patients in whom ART does not increase CD4 cell counts, suggesting a full-blown effort of the immune system in the attempt to reduce immune activation. Treg cells mediate their effect via two complementary mechanisms: IL-10-mediated and TGF-β-mediated functional impairment of immune cells, and induction of apoptosis of such cells [50–54]. Our results show that both mechanisms are active in patients in whom ART does not increases CD4 cell counts. Thus, in these patients HIV-stimulated production of IL-10 and TGF-β was increased, and expression of caspases 8 and 9 (apoptotic cells), as well as early and late apoptotic CD4+ T cells, were augmented. Preliminary results showing that in individuals with CD4+ T cells less than 500 cells/μl the blockage of the PD1–PDL1 pathway, a mechanisms of pivotal importance in inducing apoptosis, induces an increase in viable and a decrease of early and late apoptotic cells indicate that this pathway likely plays a role in lack of CD4 recovery in ART-treated individuals.

Results herein suggest a multifactorial model explaining failed CD4 recovery in successfully ART-treated patients. Thus, altered gut permeability resulting in increased LPS serum concentrations would trigger TLR-4-mediated immune activation of multiple cell types, including Treg. Activated Treg lymphocytes could prevent full CD4+ T cells reconstitution via both indirect (immunosuppressive cytokines) and direct (apoptosis) mechanisms. The observation that, with the exception of caspase 9-expression, all the immune parameters examined are altered upon HIV but not CMV stimulation deserves further analyses and underlines the extreme expansion of HIV-specific lymphocytes in this infection. From a clinical standpoint, the observation that lower nadir likely result in a more difficult increase of CD4+ T cells heightens the suggestion that the CD4 threshold actually used to start ART could be reassessed, and reinforces the need for effective immune modulators in the therapy of HIV infection.

Back to Top | Article Outline


Supported by grants from Istituto Superiore di Sanita' ‘Programma Nazionale di Ricerca sull’ AIDS, the EMPRO and AVIP EC WP6 Projects, the nGIN EC WP7 Project, the Japan Health Science Foundation, 2008 Ricerca Finalizzata (Italian Ministry of Health), 2008 Ricerca Corrente (Italian Ministry of Health), Progetto FIRB RETI: Rete Italiana Chimica Farmaceutica CHEM-PROFARMA-NET (RBPR05NWWC), and Fondazione CARIPLO.

We are grateful to Dr Elena Ricci from Departments of Infectious Diseases of the Luigi Sacco Hospital, Milano for her assistance in statistical analysis.

Author's contribution: S. Piconi: Study design, writing of the manuscript; D.T.: Study design, writing of the manuscript; A.G.: Clinical analyses; S. Parisotto: Immunologic analyses; C.M.: Clinical analyses; P.M.: Immunologic analyses; A.B.: Clinical analyses; A.C.: Clinical and immunological analyses; G.R.: Clinical analyses; M.C.: Study design, writing of the manuscript.

Back to Top | Article Outline


1. Wood E, Yip B, Hogg RS, Sherlock CH, Jahnke N, Harrigan RP, et al. Full suppression of viral load is needed to achieve an optimal CD4 cell count response among patients on triple drug antiretroviral therapy. AIDS 2000; 14:1955–1960.

2. Teixeira L, Valdez H, McCune JM, Koup RA, Badley AD, Hellerstein MK, et al. Poor CD4 T cell restoration after suppression of HIV-1 replication may reflect lower thymic function. AIDS 2001; 15:1749–1756.

3. Viard JP, Mocroft A, Chiesi A, Kirk O, Røge B, Panos G, et al. Influence of age on CD4 cell recovery in human immunodeficiency virus-infected patients receiving highly active antiretroviral therapy: evidence from the EuroSIDA study. J Infect Dis 2001; 183:1290–1294.

4. Hunt PW, Martin JN, Sinclair E, Bredt B, Hagos E, Lampiris H, et al. T cell activation is associated with lower CD4+ T cell gains in human immunodeficiency virus-infected patients with sustained viral suppression during antiretroviral therapy. J Infect Dis 2003; 183:1534–1543.

5. Giorgi JV, Hultin LE, McKeating JA, Johnson TD, Owens B, Jacobson LP, et al. Shorter survival in advanced human immunodeficiency virus type 1 infection is more closely associated with T lymphocyte activation than with plasma virus burden or virus chemokine coreceptor usage. J Infect Dis 1999; 179:859–870.

6. Greub G, Ledergerber B, Battegay M, Grob P, Perrin L, Furrer H, et al. Clinical progression, survival, and immune recovery during antiretroviral therapy in patients with HIV-1 and hepatitis C virus coinfection: the Swiss HIV Cohort Study. Lancet 2000; 356:1800–1805.

7. Al-Harthi L, Voris J, Du W, Wright D, Nowicki M, Frederick T, et al. Evaluating the impact of hepatitis C virus (HCV) on highly active antiretroviral therapy-mediated immune responses in HCV/HIV-coinfected women: role of HCV on expression of primed/memory T cells. J Infect Dis 2006; 193:1202–1210.

8. Renaud M, Katlama C, Mallet A, Calvez V, Carcelain G, Tubiana R, et al. Determinants of paradoxical CD4 cell reconstitution after protease inhibitor-containing antiretroviral regimen. AIDS 1999; 13:669–676.

9. Connick E, Lederman MM, Kotzin BL, Spritzler J, Kuritzkes DR, St. Clair M, et al. Immunrecostitution in the first year of potent antiretroviral therapy and its relationship with virologic response. J Infect Dis 2000; 181:358–363.

10. Yadavalli G, Lederman M, Lisgaris M, Stevens W, Sanne I, Cahn P, et al. South African patients have decreased CD4+ T cell replenishment and persistently elevated T cell activation during HAART compared with North American patients, despite better virologic responses [Abstract]. Conf Retrovir Opportunistic Infect. 2006; 13: abstract no 313.

11. Lederman MM, McKinis R, Kelleher D, Cutrell A, Mellors J, Neisler M, et al. Cellular restoration in HIV infected persons treated with abacavir and a protease inhibitor: age inversely predicts naive CD4 cell count increase. AIDS 2000; 14:2635–3264.

12. Kalayjian RC, Landay A, Pollard RB, Taub DD, Gross BH, Francis IR, et al. Age-related immune dysfunction in health and in human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) disease: association of age and HIV infection with naive CD8+ cell depletion, reduced expression of CD28 on CD8+ cells, and reduced thymic volumes. J Infect Dis 2003; 187:1924–1933.

13. Gandhi RT, Spritzler J, Chan E, Asmuth DM, Rodriguez B, Merigan TC, et al. Effect of baseline- and treatment-related factors on immunologic recovery after initiation of antiretroviral therapy in HIV-1 positive subjects: results from ACTG 384. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr 2006; 42:426–434.

14. Lewden C, Chene G, Morlat P, Raffi F, Dupon M, Dellamonica P, et al. HIV-infected adults with a CD4 cell count greater than 500 cells/mm3 on long-term combination antiretroviral therapy reach same mortality rates as the general population. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr 2007; 46:72–77.

15. Gras L, Kesselring AM, Griffin JT, van Sighem AI, Fraser C, Ghani AC, et al. CD4 cell counts of 800 cells/mm3 or greater after 7 years of highly active antiretroviral therapy are feasible in most patients starting with 350 cells/mm3 or greater. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr 2007; 45:183–192.

16. Kelley CF, Kitchen CMR, Hunt PW, Rodriguez B, Hecht FM, Kitahata M, et al. Incomplete peripheral CD4+ cell count restoration in HIV-infected patients receiving long-term antiretroviral treatment. Clin Infect Dis 2009; 48:787–794.

17. Kim HN, Harrington RD, Crane HM, Dhanireddy S, Dellit TH, Spach DH. Hepatitis B vaccination in HIV-infected adults: current evidence, recommendations and practical considerations. Int J STD AIDS 2009; 20:595–600.

18. French MA, King MS, Tschampa JM, da Silva BA, Landay AL. Serum immune activation markers are persistently increased in patients with HIV infection after 6 years of antiretroviral therapy despite suppression of viral replication and reconstitution of CD4+ T cells. J Infect Dis 2009; 200:1212–1215.

19. Brenchley JM, Price DA, Schacker TW, Asher TE, Silvestri G, Rao S, et al. Microbial traslocation is a cause of systemic immune activation in chronic HIV infection. Nat Med 2006; 12:1365–1371.

20. Ciccone EJ, Read SW, Mannon PJ, Yao MD, Hodge JN, Dewar R, et al. Cycling of gut mucosal CD4+ T cells decreases after prolonged antiretroviral therapy and is associated with plasma LPS levels. Mucosal Immunol. 2010; 3:172–181.

21. Hofer U, Speck RF. Disturbance of the gut-associated lymphoid tissue is associated with disease progression in chronic HIV infection. Semin Immunopathol 2009; 31:257–266.

22. Tincati C, Biasin M, Bandera A, Violin M, Marchetti G, Piacentini L, et al. Early initiation of highly active antiretroviral therapy fails to reverse immunovirological abnormalities in gut-associated lymphoid tissue induced by acute HIV infection. Antivir Ther 2009; 14:321–330.

23. Brenchley JM, Douek DC. The mucosal barrier and immune activation in HIV pathogenesis. Curr Opin HIV AIDS 2008; 3:356–361.

24. Clerici M, Stocks NI, Zajac RA, Boswell RN, Bernstein DC, Man DL, et al. Interleukin-2 production used to detect antigenic peptide recognition of HIV synthetic peptides recognition by T helper lymphocytes from asymptomatic HIV-seropositive individuals. Nature 1989; 339:383–386.

25. Friis-Møller N, Weber R, Reiss P, Thiébaut R, Kirk O, d'Arminio Monforte A, et al. Cardiovascular disease risk factors in HIV patients: association with antiretroviral therapy. Results from the DAD study. AIDS 2003; 17:1179–1193.

26. Complications and side effects. The DAD study: a large European database looks at heart attacks. TreatmentUpdate. 2009; 21:11

27. Baker JV, Peng G, Rapkin J, Abrams DI, Silverberg MJ, MacArthur RD, et al. CD4+ count and risk of non-AIDS diseases following initial treatment for HIV infection. AIDS 2008; 22:841–848.

28. Deeks SG, Phillips AN. HIV infection, antiretroviral treatment, ageing, and non-AIDS related morbidity. BMJ 2009; 338:a3172.

29. Marin B, Thiébaut R, Bucher HC, Rondeau V, Costagliola D, Dorrucci M, et al. Non-AIDS-defining deaths and immunodeficiency in the era of combination antiretroviral therapy. AIDS 2009; 23:1743–1753.

30. Baker J, Peng G, Rapkin J, Abrams D, Silverberg M, Cavert W, et al. HIV-related immune suppression after ART predicts risk of nonopportunistic diseases: results from the FIRST study. Conf Retrovir Opportunistic Infect. 2007; 37

31. Iser DM, Lewin SR. The pathogenesis of liver disease in the setting of HIV-hepatitis virus B coinfection. Antivir Ther 2009; 14:155–164.

32. Kirk JB, Bidwell Goetz M. Human immunodeficiency virus in an aging population, a complication of success. J Am Geriatr Soc 2009; 57:2129–2138.

33. Cary RR, Gupta G, Zeytun A, van Velkinburgh JC, Pardington PE. Pathogen-specific innate immune response. Adv Exp Med Biol 2007; 598:342–357.

34. Doyle SL, O'Neill LA. Toll-like receptors: from the discovery of NFkappaB to new insights into transcriptional regulations in innate immunity. Biochem Pharmacol 2006; 72:1102–1113.

35. Douek D. HIV disease progression: immune activation, microbes, and a leaky gut. Top HIV Med 2007; 15:114–117.

36. Miller Sanders C, Cruse JM, Lewis RE. Toll-like receptor and chemokine receptor expression in HIV-infected T lymphocyte subsets. Exp Mol Pathol 2009; 75:126–138.

37. Denning TL, Wang Y, Patel SR, Williams IR, Pulendran B. Lamina propria macrophages and dendritic cells differentially induce regulatory and interleukin 17-producing T cell responses. Nat Immunol 2007; 8:1086–1094.

38. Bettelli E, Carrier Y, Gao W, Korn T, Strom TB, Oukka M, et al. Reciprocal developmental pathways for the generation of pathogenic effector TH17 and regulatory T cells. Nature 2006; 11:235–238.

39. Sakaguchi S, Wing K, Onishi Y, Prieto-Martin P, Yamaguchi T. Regulatory T cells: how do they suppress immune responses? Int Immunol 2009; 21:1105–1111.

40. Cao W, Jamieson BD, Hultin LE, Hultin PM, Detels R. Regulatory T cell expansion and immune activation during untreated HIV type 1 infection are associated with disease progression. AIDS Res Hum Retroviruses 2009; 25:183–191.

41. Bi X, Suzuki Y, Gatanaga H, Oka S. High frequency and proliferation of CD4+ FOXP3+ Treg in HIV-1-infected patients with low CD4 counts. Eur J Immunol 2009; 39:301–309.

42. Terzieva V, Popova D, Kicheva M, Todorova Y, Markova R, Martinova F, et al. Correlation between the degree of immune activation, production of IL-2 and FOXP3 expression in CD4+CD25+ T regulatory cells in HIV-1 infected persons under HAART. Int Immunopharmacol 2009; 9:831–836.

43. Card CM, McLaren PJ, Wachihi C, Kimani J, Plummer FA, Fowke KR. Decreased immune activation in resistance to HIV-1 infection is associated with an elevated frequency of CD4(+)CD25(+)FOXP3(+) regulatory T cells. J Infect Dis 2009; 199:1318–1322.

44. Jiao Y, Fu J, Xing S, Fu B, Zhang Z, Shi M, et al. The decrease of regulatory T cells correlates with excessive activation and apoptosis of CD8+ T cells in HIV-1-infected typical progressors, but not in long-term nonprogressors. Immunology 2009; 128(1 Suppl):e366–e375.

45. Kared H, Lelièvre JD, Donkova-Petrini V, Aouba A, Melica G, Balbo M, et al. HIV-specific regulatory T cells are associated with higher CD4 cell counts in primary infection. AIDS 2008; 22:2451–2460.

46. Appay V, Sauce D. Immune activation and inflammation in HIV-1 infection: causes and consequences. J Pathol 2008; 214:231–241.

47. Caramalho I, Lopes-Carvalho T, Ostler D, Zelenay S, Haury M, Demengeot J. Regulatory T cells selectively express toll-like receptors and are activated by lipopolysaccharied. J Exp Med 2003; 197:403–411.

48. Dai J, Liu B, Li Z. Regulatory T cells and toll-like receptors: what is the missing link? Int Immunopharmacol 2009; 9:528–533.

49. Raimondi G, Shufesky WJ, Tokita D, Morelli AE, Thompson AW. Regulated compartimentalization of programmed cell death-1 discriminates CD4+CD25+ resting regulatory T cells from activated T cells. J Immunol 2006; 176:2808–2816.

50. Trabattoni D, Saresella M, Biasin M, Boasso A, Piacentini L, Ferrante P, et al. B7-H1 is up-regulated in HIV infection and is a novel surrogate marker of disease progression. Blood 2003; 101:2514–2520.

51. Askenasy N, Kaminitz A, Yarkoni S. Mechanism of T regulatory cell function. Autoimmun Rev 2008; 7:370–375.

52. Venkatachari NJ, Buchanan WG, Ayyavoo V. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1) infection selectively downregulates PD-1 expression in infected cells and protects the cells from early apoptosis in vitro and in vivo. Virology 2008; 376:140–153.

53. D'Souza M, Fontenot AP, Mack DG, Lozupone C, Dillon S, Meditz A, et al. Programmed death 1 expression on HIV-specific CD4+ T cells is driven by viral replication and associated with T cell dysfunction. J Immunol 2007; 179:1979–1987.

54. Vignali DAA, Collison LW, Woorkman CJ. How regulatory T cells work. Nat Rev Immunol 2008; 8:523–532.


antiretroviral therapy; CD4+ T lymphocytes; cytokines; HIV; immune activation; immunological nonresponders; lipopolysaccharide; PD1; PD-L1; toll-like receptor; Treg cells

© 2010 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.


Article Tools



Article Level Metrics

Search for Similar Articles
You may search for similar articles that contain these same keywords or you may modify the keyword list to augment your search.