Authors: M Doria, S Zicari, N Cotugno, S Domínguez-Rodríguez, A Ruggiero, GR Pascucci, A Tagarro, PR Conejo, E Nastouli, K Gärtner, M Cameron, B Richardson, Ce Foster, SL Williams, S Rinaldi, AD Rossi, C Giaquinto, P Rossi, S Pahwa, P Palma, for the EPIICAL consortium
Published in: Journal of the International Aids Society
Introduction HIV infection causes pathological changes in the natural killer (NK) cell compartment that can be only partially restored by antiretroviral therapy (ART). We investigated NK cells phenotype and function in children with perinatally acquired HIV (PHIV) and long-term viral control (five years) due to effective ART in a multicentre cross-sectional European study (CARMA, EPIICAL consortium). The impact of age at ART start and viral reservoir was also evaluated.
Methods Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) from 40 PHIV who started ART within two years of life (early treated patients (ET), ≤6 months; late treated patients (LT), > 6 months), with at least five years of HIV-1 suppression (<40 HIV copies/mL), were collected between November 2017 and August 2018. NK phenotype and function were analysed by flow cytometry and transcriptional profile of PBMCs by RNA-Seq. HIV-1 DNA was measured by real-time polymerase chain reaction (Data were analysed by Spearman correlation plots and multivariable Poisson regression model (adjusted for baseline %CD4 and RNA HIV viral load and for age at ART start as an interaction term, either ET or LT) to explore the association between NK cell parameters and HIV reservoir modulated by age at ART start.
Results A significantly higher frequency of CD56neg NK cells was found in LT compared with ET. We further found in LT a positive correlation of CD56neg NK cells with HIV-1 DNA. LT also displayed increased expression of the NKG2D and NKp46 activating receptors and perforin compared with ET. Moreover, CD107a+ and IFN-γ+ frequencies in non-stimulated NK were associated with HIV-1 DNA in LT patients. Finally, RNA-Seq analysis showed in LT an up-regulation of genes related to NK-activating pathways and susceptibility to apoptosis compared with ET.
Conclusions We show that early initiation of ART during infancy preserves the NK compartment and is associated with lower HIV-1 reservoir. Such condition persists over adolescence due to long-term viral control achieved through effective ART.