Major histocompatibility complex (MHC)-restricted cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) are part of the cellular immune response to human persistent virus infections. Measurements of the frequency and specificity of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1)-specific CTL and their variation with time may indicate their relative importance in modulating the progression of HIV-1 infection. We have used limiting dilution analysis (LDA) to derive quantitative estimates of the frequency of HIV-1-specific CTL precursors in a cross-sectional study of 23 patients at different clinical stages of HIV-1 infection and to compare these with the frequency of CTL precursors specific for another persistent virus (Epstein-Barr virus [EBV]) in the same patients. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) were stimulated in vitro with autologous HIV-1-infected lymphoblasts and assayed for cytotoxicity in 51Cr release assays against autologous and MHC-mismatched lymphoblastoid B cells infected with recombinant vaccinia viruses expressing the three HIV-1 structural gene products. The frequency of MHC-restricted precursors was high in asymptomatic HIV-1-infected patients (env-specific CTL precursors up to 73/10(6) PBMC; gag-specific CTL precursors up to 488/10(6) PBMC), although the relative frequency against the different structural gene products varied from patient to patient. The HIV-1-specific CTL precursor frequency was reduced in patients who had more severe (< 400/microliters) CD4+ lymphocyte depletion, while in the majority of such patients the frequency of CTL precursors against EBV was maintained at levels observed in healthy controls. Direct CTL activity in unstimulated PBMC was observed in three of nine patients but no correlation was found between the presence of an activated CTL response and the magnitude of the CTL response detected after stimulation in LDA. Thus, CTL precursors were detected against all three HIV-1 structural gene products in patients with CD4+ lymphocyte counts > 400/microliters, at frequencies that are high compared with those reported for other persistent viruses. A CTL response directed against multiple protein antigens of HIV-1 may protect the patient against epitope variation. The fact that the EBV-specific CTL precursor frequencies were maintained in advanced HIV-1 infection suggests that there may be selective impairment of the HIV-1-specific CTL response associated with disease progression.

This content is only available as a PDF.