A small percentage of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-infected individuals, termed elite controllers, are able to spontaneously control HIV replication in blood. As the gastrointestinal mucosa is an important site of HIV transmission and replication as well as CD4+ T-cell depletion, it is important to understand the nature of the immune responses occurring in this compartment. Although the role of the HIV-specific CD8+ T-cell responses in mucosal tissues has been described, few studies have investigated the role of mucosal HIV-specific CD4+ T cells. In this study, we assessed HIV-specific CD4+ T-cell responses in the rectal mucosa of 28 "controllers" (viral load [VL] of <2,000 copies/ml), 14 "noncontrollers" (VL of >10,000 copies/ml), and 10 individuals on highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) (VL of <75 copies/ml). Controllers had higher-magnitude Gag-specific mucosal CD4+ T-cell responses than individuals on HAART (P < 0.05), as measured by their ability to produce gamma interferon (IFN-γ), interleukin-2 (IL-2), tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), and macrophage inflammatory protein 1β (MIP-1β). The frequency of polyfunctional mucosal CD4+ T cells was also higher in controllers than in noncontrollers or individuals on HAART (P < 0.05). Controllers with the strongest HIV-specific CD4+ T-cell responses possessed class II HLA alleles, HLA-DRB1*13 and/or HLA-DQB1*06, previously associated with a nonprogression phenotype. Strikingly, individuals with both HLA-DRB1*13 and HLA-DQB1*06 had highly polyfunctional mucosal CD4+ T cells compared to individuals with HLA-DQB1*06 alone or other class II alleles. The frequency of polyfunctional CD4+ T cells in rectal mucosa positively correlated with the magnitude of the mucosal CD8+ T-cell response (Spearman's r = 0.43, P = 0.005), suggesting that increased CD4+ T-cell "help" may be important in maintaining strong CD8+ T-cell responses in the gut of HIV controllers.
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