Journal of virology

Thymic HIV-2 infection uncovers posttranscriptional control of viral replication in human thymocytes.

PMID 25473058


A unique HIV-host equilibrium exists in untreated HIV-2-infected individuals. This equilibrium is characterized by low to undetectable levels of viremia throughout the disease course, despite the establishment of disseminated HIV-2 reservoirs at levels comparable to those observed in untreated HIV-1 infection. Although the clinical spectrum is similar in the two infections, HIV-2 infection is associated with a much lower rate of CD4 T-cell decline and has a limited impact on the mortality of infected adults. Here we investigated HIV-2 infection of the human thymus, the primary organ for T-cell production. Human thymic tissue and suspensions of total or purified CD4 single-positive thymocytes were infected with HIV-2 or HIV-1 primary isolates using either CCR5 or CXCR4 coreceptors. We found that HIV-2 infected both thymic organ cultures and thymocyte suspensions, as attested to by the total HIV DNA and cell-associated viral mRNA levels. Nevertheless, thymocytes featured reduced levels of intracellular Gag viral protein, irrespective of HIV-2 coreceptor tropism and cell differentiation stage, in agreement with the low viral load in culture supernatants. Our data show that HIV-2 is able to infect the human thymus, but the HIV-2 replication cycle in thymocytes is impaired, providing a new model to identify therapeutic targets for viral replication control. HIV-1 infects the thymus, leading to a decrease in CD4 T-cell production that contributes to the characteristic CD4 T-cell loss. HIV-2 infection is associated with a very low rate of progression to AIDS and is therefore considered a unique naturally occurring model of attenuated HIV disease. HIV-2-infected individuals feature low to undetectable plasma viral loads, in spite of the numbers of circulating infected T cells being similar to those found in patients infected with HIV-1. We assessed, for the first time, the direct impact of HIV-2 infection on the human thymus. We show that HIV-2 is able to infect the thymus but that the HIV-2 replication cycle in thymocytes is impaired. We propose that this system will be important to devise immunotherapies that target viral production, aiding the design of future therapeutic strategies for HIV control.