Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) results in immunosuppression and depletion of circulating CD4+ T cells. Since the thymus is the primary organ in which T cells mature it is of interest to examine the effects of HIV infection in this tissue. HIV infection has been demonstrated in the thymuses of infected individuals and thymocytes have been previously demonstrated to be susceptible to HIV infection both in vivo, using the SCID-hu mouse, and in vitro. The present study sought to determine which subsets of thymocytes were infected in the SCID-hu mouse model and to evaluate HIV-related alterations in the thymic microenvironment. Using two different primary HIV isolates, infection was found in CD4+/CD8+ double positive thymocytes as well as in both the CD4+ and CD8+ single positive subsets of thymocytes. The kinetics of infection and resulting viral burden differed among the three thymocyte subsets and depended on which HIV isolate was used for infection. Thymic epithelial (TE) cells were also shown to endocytose virus and to often contain copious amounts of viral RNA in the cytoplasm by in situ hybridization, although productive infection of these cells could not be definitively shown. Furthermore, degenerating TE cells were observed even without detection of HIV in the degenerating cells. Two striking morphologic patterns of infection were seen, involving either predominantly thymocyte infection and depletion, or TE cell involvement with detectable cytoplasmic viral RNA and/or TE cell toxicity. Thus, a variety of cells in the human thymus is susceptible to HIV infection, and infection with HIV results in a marked disruption of the thymic microenvironment leading to depletion of thymocytes and degeneration of TE cells.

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