Proviral HIV DNA was determined in PBMC and showed a less extended distribution, from 2 to 3.92 log10 HIV-1 DNA copies/106 PBMC, with a median value of 2.91. Proviral HIV-1 DNA at study entry was positively correlated with plasma HIV RNA (P < 0.001) and higher HIV-DNA values were associated with positive p24 antigen (P = 0.003) (Fig. 1a). In addition, proviral HIV DNA was negatively correlated with the CD4 lymphocyte count (P = 0.046) (Fig. 1b).
The clinical characteristics of patients with chronic HIV-1 infection, before the initiation of HAART, are given Table 2. The CD4 lymphocyte count ranged from 1 to 888, with a median value of 103 cells/μl. Plasma HIV-RNA levels ranged from 3.8 to 6.5 log10 HIV-1-RNA copies/ml, with a median value of 4.92. Proviral HIV DNA extended from 2 to 3.92 log10 HIV-1-DNA copies/106 PBMC, with a median value of 3.26.
The evolution of plasma HIV RNA under HAART in PRIMO subjects and the two groups of patients with chronic HIV-1 infection, naive or pre-treated, are presented in Fig. 1a. A very similar pattern of decline in plasma HIV RNA in response to treatment was observed in the three groups. Within the PRIMO group, plasma HIV-1 RNA diminished to less than 20 copies/ml for two subjects after 1 month, six subjects after 3 months, 14 subjects after 6 months, and 16 subjects after 12 months of treatment.
By comparison, the pattern of decline in proviral HIV DNA under treatment, presented in Fig. 2b, is quite different. The median level of proviral HIV DNA was 2.81 before the initiation of active antiretroviral treatment. After 1 month of treatment, the median level was 2.75 log10 DNA copies/106 PBMC, after 6 months, 2.34, and after 12 months the median level of proviral DNA attained 2.14 log10 DNA copies/106 PBMC.
When compared with the patients with chronic HIV infection who were previously naive of treatment, the median proviral HIV-DNA level, before the initiation of HAART, was significantly lower in the PRIMO group (2.81 log10 DNA copies/106 PBMC) than in the chronic group (3.59 log10 DNA copies/106 PBMC) (P = 0.02). Despite this lower level, HAART was more active on proviral HIV DNA when initiated during PHI than in the chronic phase, as evidenced by the decrease in cellular HIV-1 DNA observed after 6 months of HAART: −0.51 versus −0.30, respectively (P = 0.05) (Fig. 3). Between 6 and 12 months of treatment, a similar decrease was observed in the two groups (P = 0.42). The net result after 12 months of follow-up was of borderline significance, −0.78 log versus −0.52 (P = 0.12) (Fig. 3), perhaps because of the small sample size.
Interestingly, those patients with chronic HIV infection who were pre-treated before the initiation of PI and PRIMO subjects had similar initial levels of proviral HIV DNA (P = 0.35), but differed in their response to treatment. Indeed, the diminution in proviral HIV DNA was more pronounced in PRIMO patients (−0.78) than in chronic-phase patients (−0.32) at 12 months (P = 0.005) (Fig. 3). The pattern of decline in proviral HIV DNA observed in the three groups was thus different from that observed for plasma HIV-1 RNA (Fig. 3).
We have thus analysed whether this more pronounced decrease in PRIMO patients was dependent on the baseline proviral DNA level. The initial proviral DNA load was found to be correlated with the proviral load at 12 months (Spearman test r = 0.76, P = 0.0013), but not with the decrease in plasma viraemia achieved after 12 months (P = 0.72). Despite a homogeneous decline in plasma HIV RNA, a heterogeneous decrease in proviral HIV DNA was observed. Marked decreases in proviral HIV-1 DNA between baseline and M12 could thus be observed both in subjects with high or low levels of proviral HIV-1 DNA (Fig. 4).
Some years ago, the efficacy of combination therapy that includes a PI in suppressing HIV replication led to the belief that the early treatment of HIV-infected individuals, and in particular when initiated during PHI, might well eradicate the virus. Currently available antiretroviral therapies, however, fail to achieve this objective, even when administered soon after the first symptoms of PHI [3,4,16–19]. Nonetheless, it has been suggested that treatment at this early stage, although not eradicating the virus, might at least efficiently control viraemia and thus prevent the loss of HIV-specific CD4 T cell responses [2,5]. These HIV-specific CD4 T cell responses have been strongly and inversely correlated with the viral burden in vivo, although prolonged viral suppression caused by antiretroviral therapy has resulted in a decline in functional HIV-specific CD4 T cells . Nevertheless, early treatment during PHI does appear to provide an immunological benefit, as evidenced by the persistence of HIV-specific CD4 responses in PRIMO subjects on active antiretroviral therapy (Venet et al., personal communication).
In patients under HAART, plasma viraemia is rapidly suppressed to undetectable levels [3,4,14,19,21–29], even though low-level replication is ongoing. For this reason, proviral HIV DNA could be a more informative marker than plasma HIV RNA with which to assess the long-term impact of treatment . It is not known to what extent this low-level replication is responsible for replenishing the pool of HIV-infected cells, but our results indicate that HAART can reduce the proviral HIV-DNA load more efficiently when initiated during PHI than during the chronic phase. Our results also underscore the importance of effective initial treatment, even when initiated in the chronic phase. Indeed, although the median decrease in proviral HIV DNA observed in patients who were previously naive of treatment was −0.72 and −0.52 for individuals with primary and chronic HIV-1 infection, respectively, this decrease was less pronounced (−0.32 log) in pre-treated chronic-phase patients. Zaunders et al. , however, reported that untreated PHI patients and patients treated within 45–90 days from the onset of symptoms had comparable HIV-DNA levels, and therefore suggested that HAART had little effect on the HIV-DNA burden established after acute infection. We cannot rule out the hypothesis that the more pronounced effect of early HAART treatment relative to delayed HAART on the proviral decline could be ascribed to the evolving immune response during the acute phase of infection. Early HAART treatment would be beneficial by preventing ongoing dissemination and thus by maintaining a low viral DNA reservoir.
Taken together, our results argue in favour of the therapeutic advantage of early treatment of HIV infection, and lend support to the early initiation of therapy. Nevertheless, this view should be tempered by the fact that lifelong treatment may be required. Indeed, treated patients face problems of tolerance owing to the numerous side-effects and toxicity of retroviral inhibitors, as well as problems of therapeutic failure, underscoring the limitations of long-term therapy, which would be even further strained were treatment initiated in primary infection.
Moreover, before the initiation of treatment certain PRIMO patients not only had a high CD4 cell count, but also low levels of plasma HIV RNA and proviral HIV DNA. We may hypothesize that some of those individuals are capable of spontaneously controlling virus replication for years without any treatment. We could thus spare side-effects or toxicity such as lipodystrophy, which may even occur in PHI-treated patients. Why some PRIMO patients had low viral burdens while others had high burdens is not yet understood. The level of proviral DNA is probably peculiar to the individual, because host genetic factors, such as chemokine receptor gene polymorphisms, which are determinants for disease progression  and the response to treatment [34,35], are likely to be involved in the establishment of the pool of HIV-infected cells.
Our study shows that heterogeneous viral loads are observed early after PHI and that, upon the initiation of HAART, responses are heterogeneous. Further studies are needed to assess the predictive value of the HIV-DNA level for the infection outcome. The quantitative analysis of proviral DNA, before the initiation of antiretroviral therapy, could be a constructive marker for arguing for treatment of PHI. At present, because of the growing evidence on the side-effects and toxicity of HAART and the need for lifelong treatment, some physicians question the moment of treatment initiation for PHI patients, in that some of them might spontaneously control viral replication for years. A large-scale randomized study of early therapy with careful proviral load assessment is thus needed to delineate further the moment to commence antiretroviral therapy in the primary infection period.
The authors are indebted to the patients enrolled in the French PRIMO Cohort Study and to our clinician colleagues, without whom none of these studies would have been possible. The authors gratefully acknowledge the French HIV Quantification Group for data concerning HIV-1-infected patients in chronic phase. They would also like to thank Dr J. Richardson for reviewing the manuscript.
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Primo Cohort Study Group: C. Caulin, J. Cervoni, E. Badsi (Lariboisière, Paris); F. Raffi, V. Reliquet, E. Billaud, J.L. Esnault (Hôtel-Dieu, Nantes); A.P. Blanc, T. Allegre (Aix en Provence); M. Dorra, J. Derouineau, S. Morelon, E. Rouveix (A. Paré, Boulogne); G. Sobesky, S. Abel, A. Cabié (Fort de France); P. Henon, G. Beck-Wirth (Emile Muller, Mulhouse); C. Bazin, M. Six, R. Verdon (Caen); S. Herson, N. Amirat, J. Dagron (Pitié-Salpétrière, Paris); J. Beylot, P. Morlat, D. Malvy, M. Bonarek (Saint André, Bordeaux); P. Morel, F. Timsit (St Louis, Paris); J.P. Cassuto, C. Sohn (L'Archet, Nice); J.L. Vildé, C. Jestin, C. Jadand, U. Colasante (Bichat, Paris); J.F. Delfraissy, C. Goujard, X. Copin, Y. Quertainmont (Bicêtre, Le Kremlin Bicêtre); D. Sicard, D. Salmon, G. Spiridon (Cochin, Paris); G. Charpentier, P. Chevojon (Corbeil); J. Achard, P. Fialaire (Angers); F. Vachon, E. Bouvet, I. Fournier (Bichat, Paris); J.F. Bach, J.P. Viard (Necker, Paris); B. Dupont, C. Joly (Pasteur, Paris); R. Laurent, C. Drobacheff, Y. Bourezane (St Jacques, Besançon); H. Gallais, A.M. Quinson, I. Ravaux (La Conception, Marseille); P. Dellamonica, S. Chailloux (L'Archet, Nice); M. Kazatchkine, D. Laureillard (Broussais, Paris); J. Beytout, C. Jacomet (Hôtel Dieu, Clermont-Ferrand); J. Laffay, A. Greder Belan (A. Mignot, Le Chesnay); J.C. Imbert, O. Picard (St Antoine, Paris); O. Bletry, D. Zucman (Foch, Suresnes); P. Galanaud, F. Boué (A. Béclère, Clamart); J.C. Messmer, B. Delmas (Joffre, Perpignan); Ph. Vinceneux, A.M. Simonpoli (L. Mourier, Colombes); A. Sobel, P. Lesprit (H. Mondor, Créteil); M. Gayraud, L. Bodard (I.M.M. Jourdan, Paris); D. Sereni, C. Lascoux (St Louis, Paris); M. Chousterman, O. Launay (Créteil); T. Colin, V. Launay (Cherbourg); P. Chavanet, M. Buisson (Dijon); F. Jambon, V. Baillat (Montpellier); D. Merrien (Compiegne); G. Dien, C. Hascoet (Saint Brieuc); D. Houlbert (Alençon); J.P. Clauvel, L. Gérard (St Louis, Paris); J.P. Coulaud, M. Saada (Bichat, Paris); G. Guermonprez, A. Dulioust (Briis s/Forges); Gonzalez, F. Sanlaville (Sens); C. Miodovski (Paris); P. Boudon, D. Malbec (R. Ballanger, Aulnay Sous Bois); J. Deville, I. Beguinot (Robert Debré, Reims).