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Systemic Immune Activation and HIV Shedding in the Female Genital Tract

Spencer, LaShonda Y. MD*; Christiansen, Shawna PhD; Wang, Chia-Hao H. PhD*; Mack, Wendy J. PhD; Young, Mary MD; Strickler, Howard D. MD§; Anastos, Kathryn MD§; Minkoff, Howard MD; Cohen, Mardge MD; Geenblatt, Ruth M. MD#; Karim, Roksana MBBS, PhD; Operskalski, Eva PhD*; Frederick, Toni PhD*; Homans, James D. MD*; Landay, Alan PhD**; Kovacs, Andrea MD*

JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes: 1 February 2016 - Volume 71 - Issue 2 - p 155–162
doi: 10.1097/QAI.0000000000000823
Clinical Science

Background: Plasma HIV RNA is the most significant determinant of cervical HIV shedding. However, shedding is also associated with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and cervical inflammation. The mechanism by which this occurs is poorly understood. There is evidence that systemic immune activation promotes viral entry, replication, and HIV disease progression. We hypothesized that systemic immune activation would be associated with an increase in HIV genital shedding.

Methods: Clinical assessments, HIV RNA in plasma and genital secretions, and markers of immune activation (CD38+DR+ and CD38DR) on CD4+ and CD8+ T cells in blood were evaluated in 226 HIV+ women enrolled in the Women's Interagency HIV Study. There were 569 genital evaluations of which 159 (28%) exhibited HIV RNA shedding, defined as HIV viral load >80 copies per milliliter. We tested associations between immune activation and shedding using generalized estimating equations with logit link function.

Results: In the univariate model, higher levels of CD4+ and CD8+ T-cell activation in blood were significantly associated with genital tract shedding. However, in the multivariate model adjusting for plasma HIV RNA, STIs, and genital tract infections, only higher levels of resting CD8+ T cells (CD38DR) were significantly inversely associated with HIV shedding in the genital tract (odds ratios = 0.44, 95% confidence interval: 0.21 to 0.9, P = 0.02).

Conclusions: The association of systemic immune activation with genital HIV shedding is multifactorial. Systemic T-cell activation is associated with genital tract shedding in univariate analysis but not when adjusting for plasma HIV RNA, STIs, and genital tract infections. In addition, women with high percentage of resting T cells are less likely to have HIV shedding compared with those with lower percentages. These findings suggest that a higher percentage of resting cells, as a result of maximal viral suppression with treatment, may decrease local genital activation, HIV shedding, and transmission.

*Maternal, Child and Adolescent Center for Infectious Diseases and Virology, Department of Pediatrics, Division of Infectious Disease, University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles, CA;

Department of Preventive Medicine, University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles, CA;

Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, Georgetown School of Medicine, Washington, DC;

§Departments of Medicine and Epidemiology and Population Health, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx NY;

Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Maimonides Medical Center and SUNY Downstate, Brooklyn, NY;

Departments of Medicine, Rush University and Cook County Bureau of Health, Chicago, IL;

#Department of Clinical Pharmacology, University of California San Francisco School of Pharmacy, San Francisco, CA;

**Department of Immunology and Microbiology, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, IL.

Correspondence to: LaShonda Y. Spencer, MD, Maternal, Child and Adolescent Center for Infectious Diseases and Virology, Department of Pediatrics, Division of Infectious Disease, University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. 1000 S Fremont Avenue, Unit 62, A10, Suite 10220, Alhambra, CA 91803 (e-mail:

Supported by grant RO1 AI052065 (K.A.) (R01 and R56) from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and grant R01 CA85178 (H.D.S.) from National Cancer Institute. The WIHS is funded primarily by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, with additional co‐funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Institute on Mental Health. Targeted supplemental funding for specific projects is also provided by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, and the NIH Office of Research on Women's Health. WIHS data collection is also supported by UL1‐TR000004 (UCSF CTSA) and UL1‐TR000454 (Atlanta CTSA).

Presented at: Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections 2008, Boston, MA (Poster 674, abstract T-136).

The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Received December 16, 2014

Accepted July 08, 2015

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HIV RNA is detected in the genital tract of 40%–80% of HIV-infected women with detectable plasma viral loads.1–4 Several investigators have also shown that shedding of HIV in the genital tract can occur in 20%–30% of women with low or undetectable plasma HIV RNA.5,6 Our previous studies and those of others have demonstrated that HIV genital tract shedding is most closely related to higher plasma HIV RNA levels1 but is also associated with the presence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), cervical inflammation,7–9 and the vaginal microbiome.10,11 In the era of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), the likelihood of genital shedding is significantly lower in treated women.1,12,13 Although genital shedding decreased rapidly after antiretroviral (ARV) therapy initiation in one prospective observational study, suppression of genital HIV shedding was not complete.12 We have shown that although potent ARV therapy was associated with a significant decrease in genital tract shedding, 59% of women receiving potent ARV therapy still exhibited genital tract shedding and 16% of these women had shedding even when plasma RNA was <500 (50–500) copies per milliliter.1

Generalized immune activation is the hallmark of HIV infection and is associated with clinical outcome and affects mucosal immunity. Our current study aimed to evaluate the impact of T-cell activation in blood, as measured by the expression of CD38 and DR on CD4+ and CD8+ T cells, on genital tract HIV shedding. We measured HIV viral load in paired blood and cervicovaginal lavage (CVL) samples and blood immune activation markers by flow cytometry in a cohort of HIV-infected women. We hypothesized that systemic immune activation would be associated with an increase in HIV genital shedding.

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Study Population

Subjects were a subset of the 2059 HIV-infected women enrolled in the Women's Interagency HIV Study (WIHS). Women were enrolled during 1994–1995 or 2001–2002 at 6 sites in the United States. WIHS methods and baseline cohort characteristics have been described previously.14 This subgroup consists of 226 women enrolled in WIHS during 1994–1995 who had at least one quantitation of HIV in paired plasma and genital tract specimens available for evaluation from November 1994 through September 2001.

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Clinical Data

Women enrolled in WIHS were monitored at 6-month intervals. At baseline (entry into the cohort) and subsequent semiannual visits, standardized interviews collected demographic, clinical, and historical data, physical and pelvic examinations were performed, and clinical and research specimens were obtained, including blood, Papanicolaou (Pap) smear, and genital tract specimens. The gynecological examination consisted of visual inspection and speculum examination for lesions and discharge. CVL was collected after a lavage was performed using 10 mL of sterile nonbacterostatic saline into the vagina and against the cervical os and then aspirating from the posterior vaginal fornix.

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Laboratory Procedures


Baseline serology for herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV) 1 and HSV-2 was performed with Western blot in one central laboratory (University of Washington). Syphilis testing was done at each local clinical laboratory using the rapid plasma reagin test.

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Viral Load Determination

Plasma HIV viral load (plasma viral load) quantitation was performed in laboratories participating in the Division of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome Viral Quality Assurance Program and who were CLIA certified as required by Division of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Plasma viral load was measured real time using isothermal nucleic acid sequence–based amplification. Initial tests used NucliSens (Organon Teknika Corp., Durham, NC, with a lower limit of detection [LLD] of 80 copies per milliliter). After 2007, it was measured using COBAS AmpliPrep/COBAS TaqMan HIV-1 Test (Roche Molecular Systems, Branchburg, NJ, with LLD of 48 copies per milliliter). HIV RNA testing of CVL for all visits was performed using the NucliSens assay (LLD of 80 copies per milliliter). HIV genital shedding was defined as HIV RNA >80 copies per milliliter.

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Flow Cytometry

Lymphocyte subset analyses were performed real time using standard flow cytometric clones and techniques in laboratories that were certified by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Immunology Quality Assurance Program as previously reported.15 Women were evaluated for expression of activation of CD4+ and CD8+ T cells in either fresh whole blood collected in EDTA tubes using 3-color flow cytometry or frozen peripheral blood mononuclear cells using 3- or 4-color flow cytometry as reported elsewhere.16–18 The following fluorochrome-conjugated antibodies were used: anti-CD3, -CD4, -CD8, -HLA-DR, and -CD38 (Becton Dickinson Immunophenotyping Kit II; Becton Dickinson, San Jose, CA). Flow cytometric analysis was performed using a FACSCalibur flow cytometer using CELLQuest software (Becton Dickinson).

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Genital Tract Evaluations

CVL specimens were collected for saline and potassium hydroxide preparation for microscopy, pH, candida culture, Gram stain for bacterial vaginosis (BV), swabs for gonorrhea/chlamydia nucleic acid detection test (baseline only), trichomonas by wet mount or culture, and Pap smear. Swabs for HSV culture and syphilis screening were obtained if ulcer/vesicle/fissure was present. Inflammation (leukocytes on Pap smear) and inflammation-associated cellular changes (cellular changes found with inflammation), including basophilic cytoplasm, enlarged unevenly sized nuclei, enlarged, irregular, or multiple nucleoli, were ascertained from Pap smear. Pap smears were read in a central laboratory (Kyto Diagnostics, New York, NY). Candidiasis was diagnosed by the presence of pseudohyphae or positive culture. Gram stains were interpreted for BV in a central laboratory (University of Washington) using the Nugent score criteria, with categorization as normal (0–3), intermediate (4–6), or consistent (7–10).19 Trichomoniasis was diagnosed by visualization of motile trichomonads on wet mount or with positive culture. Human papillomavirus (HPV) was identified by polymerase chain reaction in 2 central laboratories.20

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Statistical Analyses

Women in the study were classified as “shedders” if they had at least one HIV shedding visit (CVL viral load >80 copies per milliliter) and as “nonshedders” if they never shed HIV. Demographic and clinical characteristics at study enrollment (baseline) were compared between HIV shedders and nonshedders by χ2 tests. Characteristics evaluated at baseline and subsequent visits included age at visit, race/ethnicity (White, African American, Hispanic, or other), ARV therapy used since the last visit (no therapy, monotherapy, combination, or HAART), plasma viral load level (≤80, 81–1000, 1001–10,000, 10,001–100,000, >100,000 copies per milliliter), CD4 cell count (≤200, 201–350, 351–500, >500 cells per cubic millimeter), number of lifetime male sex partners, BV Gram stain score (normal: 0–3, intermediate: 4–6, or consistent: 7–10), candidiasis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, HPV, HSV, syphilis, trichomonas, cervical lesions, vaginal pH (<4.5, 4.5–5.4, ≥5.5), inflammation, and inflammation-associated cellular change.

To assess the relationship between systemic T-cell activation and genital infections, generalized estimating equation models with identity link function and an exchangeable correlation matrix were used to account for multiple visits per subject. Percentages of CD4+ and CD8+ T cells in blood that were DR+CD38+ or DRCD38were treated as the continuous dependent variables. Adjusting for plasma viral load, the analyses were performed separately for each of the variables used to indicate genital infection in a previous study.21 Plasma viral load was treated as a continuous independent variable and was log10 transformed to reduce positive skew. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, HSV-1, and HSV-2 were measured at baseline and were modeled as fixed variables. HPV, candidiasis, Trichomonas vaginalis, BV Gram stain score, inflammation, inflammation-associated cellular changes, cervical lesions, and vaginal pH, which were obtained at each visit, were modeled as time-dependent variables.

The relationship between systemic T-cell activation and HIV shedding in the genital tract was assessed using generalized estimating equations with logit link function and an exchangeable correlation matrix. The dependent variable was whether HIV shedding was present in the genital tract at a given visit. The immune markers of interest, CD38+DR+ and CD38DR on both CD4 and CD8 T cells, were categorized by tertiles. The longitudinal associations were first evaluated univariately (not adjusting for other covariates) and then were adjusted for HIV plasma viral load (log10 transformed). The associations were also assessed by adjusting for HIV viral load and markers of genital infections that were found significantly associated with immune activation (P < 0.05). Vaginal pH was not included in these adjustments as it may result in overadjustment as a marker for genital infections. Associations were presented as odds ratios (OR) with 95% confidence intervals (CIs). STATA software (version 11.2) was used for all statistical analyses.

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Study Population

The 226 HIV-positive women in this study had 569 genital evaluations with a median of 2.5 visits per women (range: 1–6 visits); women exhibited HIV genital shedding on 159 (28%) of these visits. There were few differences in demographic, virologic, behavioral, and clinical characteristics at WIHS enrollment between the nonshedders (50.9%, n = 115) and shedders (49.1%, n = 111) (Table 1). The HIV shedders tended to be younger, with a median age of 34 vs. 37 years for nonshedders (P = 0.03). Among the HIV shedders, African Americans accounted for 58.6%, Hispanics 20.7%, and Whites 19.8%. At baseline, only 5% of all women had plasma viral load <80 copies per milliliter. The shedders tended to have higher viral loads at baseline (median: 17,500 copies per milliliter, interquartile range: 4400–76,000) vs. nonshedders (median: 15,051 copies per milliliter, interquartile range: 1400–53,000), although this was not statistically significant (P = 0.07). The median CD4 cell count was similar in both groups, with approximately one-third in each group having CD4 cell counts >500 cells per cubic millimeter. Approximately half of the women were not receiving any ARV therapy at baseline (50% vs. 40%, nonshedders vs. shedders), and only one woman in the shedder cohort was on HAART at enrollment (0.9%). The median vaginal pH was 5 for both nonshedders and shedders. Very few women had evidence of active HSV infection by culture (0.9% in both groups, data not shown), chlamydia (0% vs. 0.9%, nonshedders vs. shedders), and gonorrhea (0% in both groups) at enrollment. Shedders were more likely to have cervical inflammation (leukocytes on Pap smear) than nonshedders (20.6% vs. 8.9%, respectively, P = 0.02). Other common genital infections, including BV, HPV (all types), and trichomonas, did not differ by group. A large percentage of women in both cohorts had evidence of HSV seropositivity: HSV-1 (79% vs. 80%, nonshedders vs. shedders) and HSV-2 (76% vs. 80%, nonshedders vs. shedders). Few women in either cohort had cervical lesions, candidiasis, syphilis, or inflammation-associated cellular changes.

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Immune Activation Markers and Genital Infections

Each of the immune markers was analyzed for their association with cervical inflammation and STIs (Table 2). Adjusting for plasma viral load, CD4+CD38+DR+ was associated with HSV-1 seropositivity (β = 3.18, standard error [SE] = 1.52, P = 0.04) and HPV infection (β = 2.2, SE = 1.04, P = 0.04). The presence of T. vaginalis was associated with lower levels of resting CD8+ (CD38DR) T cells (β = −2.19, SE = 0.72, P = 0.002), and candidiasis was associated with lower levels of resting CD4+ (CD38DR) T cells (β = −2.8, SE = 0.97, P = 0.004). Of the other markers of cervical inflammation, only vaginal pH of 5.5+ (β = 2.58, SE = 1.04, P = 0.01) was associated with higher levels of resting CD4+ (CD38DR) T cells.

Univariate and multivariate models analyzing the association between the immune markers and genital shedding are shown in Table 3. In the univariate model, high levels of T-cell activation (CD38+DR+) were significantly associated with genital shedding for both CD8+ T cells (OR = 3.52, 95% CI: 2.05 to 6.03, P < 0.001 for highest vs. lowest tertile) and CD4+ T cells (OR = 4.31, 95% CI: 2.35 to 7.91, P < 0.001 for highest vs. lowest tertile). Conversely, more resting cells (CD38DR) were associated with less shedding for both CD4+ and CD8+ T cells (P < 0.001 for both), and these associations remained significant after adjusting for plasma viral load. However, after adjusting for plasma viral load and those significant genital cofactors measured at every visit, including candidiasis, HPV, and trichimoniasis, only higher levels of resting CD8+ (CD38DR) T cells (OR = 0.44, 95% CI: 0.21 to 0.9, P = 0.02 for highest vs. lowest tertile) were significantly inversely associated with the presence of HIV shedding in the genital tract.

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This is one of the largest prospective studies to evaluate the association between systemic T-cell activation and genital HIV shedding. This study has several notable findings. First, in our unadjusted model, systemic T-cell activation was significantly associated with genital tract shedding as supported by other studies.22 However, when controlling for HIV RNA alone and with STIs/genital tract infections, the association of systemic immune activation and genital shedding was lost. Second, although we did not see an association with specific genital infections and HIV shedding at baseline, cervical inflammation was more common in the HIV shedder cohort. Third, when analyzing the association of STI, genital tract infections, cervical inflammation, and immune activation, we found that only HSV-1 seropositivity and HPV infection were associated with CD4 activation, but not CD8 activation. Our findings are consistent with other studies, which have shown that subclinical or asymptomatic herpes infection and coinfection with HPV are associated with increased plasma and genital HIV viral loads in addition to systemic and/or local immune activation.20 Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when adjusted for plasma viral load, we found that women with higher percentages of nonactivated resting CD4 and CD8 T cells (CD38DR) were significantly less likely to have genital tract shedding. This held true for CD8 resting cells in our fully adjusted model, which included significant genital tract infections.

Activated T cells are necessary for HIV replication and are more likely to have HIV reservoirs and replication-competent virus than resting T cells. Activation promotes virus entry, provirus integration into host cell DNA, and viral RNA transcription23–25 and predicts adverse prognosis for HIV-infected patients.26–28 Our findings support results of previous studies suggesting that systemic immune activation levels may reflect local activation levels, which may promote genital tract HIV replication.22,25,29 In one small study, investigators showed that the presence of immune activation in the cervix was independently associated with genital HIV shedding and that cervical immune activation can be predicted by immune activation in the blood.22 Although we did not specifically look at activation of T cells in the genital mucosa, we did find that plasma activation levels in the unadjusted models and levels of resting T cells in the fully adjusted models were associated with shedding.

These data suggest that although levels of systemic activation and HIV replication are reflected in the genital tract, local factors, such as STIs, cervical inflammation, and infection, may contribute to local activation of T cells and replication of HIV in the genital tract. However, when there are more resting CD8 T cells circulating, local genital tract HIV replication may be diminished, which underscores the importance of achieving maximal viral suppression with ARV therapy with the aim of achieving higher levels of resting T cells.

Our study has several limitations. First, we may have underestimated the percentage of activated T cells as we defined activation as coexpression of both CD38 and HLA-DR and did not include T cells that express CD38 or HLA-DR alone. Second, our study was not designed to evaluate the impact of local genital immune activation on systemic activation. In addition, we did neither sample the genital tract at the same time during the menstrual cycle nor evaluate the levels of local inflammatory markers and cytokines as done in other studies.22,30 However, it is possible that similar to gut-associated T-cell depletion and immune activation,31–33 HIV replication in the genital tract results in depletion of mucosal T cells and translocation of bacterial products resulting in systemic immune activation. In fact, Bull et al30 demonstrated that an increase in local inflammatory cytokines/chemokines and genital tract HIV shedding was associated with a depletion in CD4 T cells (FOXP3+) in the genital tract although it is unclear what effect this had on systemic immune activation. Alternatively, it is possible that cells that are activated before circulating through the female genital tract may increase local activation through secretion of cytokines and thereby HIV replication locally. In addition, protective factors within the vaginal microbiome, such as H2O2-producing lactobacillus, may inhibit viral replication and local immune activation34 and thus systemic immune activation.

In conclusion, our study suggests that preventing or controlling systemic immune activation by suppressing HIV viral replication and/or genital inflammation and treating coinfections may decrease the risk of genital immune activation and local HIV replication and therefore decrease the risk of HIV transmission to partners and offspring. Having higher percentages of resting T cells, which is seen with maximal viral suppression with treatment, may also decrease the likelihood of mucosal replication and, in turn, transmission. Further studies to better characterize the associations and causality are warranted.

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Data in this article were collected by the Women's Interagency HIV Study (WIHS). The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. WIHS (Principal Investigators): UAB‐MS WIHS (Michael Saag, Mirjam‐Colette Kempf, and Deborah Konkle‐Parker), U01‐AI‐103401; Atlanta WIHS (Ighovwerha Ofotokun and Gina Wingood), U01‐AI‐103408; Bronx WIHS (K. Anastos), U01‐AI‐035004; Brooklyn WIHS (H. Minkoff and Deborah Gustafson), U01‐AI‐031834; Chicago WIHS (M. Cohen), U01‐AI‐034993; Metropolitan Washington WIHS (M. Young), U01‐AI‐034994; Miami WIHS (Margaret Fischl and Lisa Metsch), U01‐AI‐103397; UNC WIHS (Adaora Adimora), U01‐AI‐103390; Connie Wofsy Women's HIV Study, Northern California (Ruth Greenblatt, Bradley Aouizerat, and Phyllis Tien), U01‐AI‐034989; WIHS Data Management and Analysis Center (Stephen Gange and Elizabeth Golub), U01‐AI‐042590; Southern California WIHS (Alexandra Levine and Marek Nowicki), U01‐HD‐032632 (WIHS I–WIHS IV).

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T-cell activation; immune activation; HIV genital tract shedding

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