Astrocytes are proposed to be a critical reservoir of HIV in the brain. However, HIV infection of astrocytes is inefficient in vitro except for cell-to-cell transmission from HIV-infected cells. Here, we explore mechanisms by which cell-free HIV bypasses entry and postentry barriers leading to a productive infection.
HIV infection of astrocytes was investigated by a variety of techniques including transfection of CD4-expressing plasmid, treatment with lysosomotropic agents or using a transwell culture system loaded with HIV-infected lymphocytes. Infection was monitored by HIV-1 p24 in culture supernatants and integrated proviral DNA was quantified by Alu-PCR.
Persistent HIV infection could be established in astrocytes by transfection of proviral DNA, transduction with VSV-G-pseudotyped viruses, transient expression of CD4 followed by HIV infection, or simultaneous treatment with lysosomotropic chloroquine or Tat-HA2 peptide with HIV infection. In absence of these treatments, HIV entered via endocytosis as seen by electronmicroscopy and underwent lysosomal degradation without proviral integration, indicating endocytosis is a dead end for HIV in astrocytes. Nevertheless, productive infection was observed when astrocytes were in close proximity but physically separated from HIV-infected lymphocytes in the transwell cultures. This occurred with X4 or dual tropic R5X4 viruses and was blocked by an antibody or antagonist to CXCR4.
A CD4-independent, CXCR4-dependent mechanism of viral entry is proposed, by which immature HIV particles from infected lymphocytes might directly bind to CXCR4 on astrocytes and trigger virus--cell fusion during or after the process of viral maturation. This mechanism may contribute to the formation of brain HIV reservoirs.