Human herpesvirus 6 (HHV-6), a T-lymphotropic human herpesvirus, is a potentially immunosuppressive agent that has been suggested to play a role as a cofactor in the natural history of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. We studied the interactions between HHV-6 and gamma/delta T lymphocytes, a subset of T cells involved in the protective immune response against specific microorganisms. Polyclonal gamma/delta T cell populations, purified from the peripheral blood of healthy adults and activated in vitro with phytohemagglutinin, were exposed to HHV-6, strain GS (subgroup A), at the approximate multiplicity of infection (MOI) of 1. Signs of virus replication were detected as early as 72 h after infection, as documented by immunofluorescence, electron microscopy, and transmission of extracellular virus. Progression of the infection was associated with the appearance of typical cytomorphological changes and, eventually, massive cell death. In contrast, no signs of infection or cytopathic effects were detected after exposure of gamma/delta T lymphocytes to HHV-7, a CD4+ T-lymphotropic virus closely related to HHV-6. Polyclonal gamma/delta T cells displayed cytolytic activity against both autologous and heterologous target cells infected with HHV-6 and maintained this activity for at least 72 h after infection with HHV-6, despite the high MOI used. As previously documented in mature CD8+ alpha/beta T cells and natural killer cells, HHV-6 infection induced gamma/delta T lymphocytes to express de novo CD4 messenger RNA and protein, as detected by reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction and fluorocytometry, respectively. Whereas purified CD4- gamma/delta T cell populations were per se refractory to HIV infection, they became susceptible to productive infection by HIV-1, strain IIIB, after induction of CD4 expression by HHV-6. These results demonstrate that gamma/delta T cells can be directly targeted and killed by a herpesvirus and may have implications for the potential role of HHV-6 in AIDS.

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