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PLoS One. 2012;7(3):e33925. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0033925. Epub 2012 Mar 21.

Chronic immune activation in HIV-1 infection contributes to reduced interferon alpha production via enhanced CD40:CD40 ligand interaction.

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  • 1Institute of Clinical and Molecular Virology, German National Reference Centre for Retroviruses, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Erlangen, Germany.


Although a signature of increased interferon (IFN-)alpha production is observed in HIV-1 infection, the response of circulating plasmacytoid dendritic cells (PDC) to Toll-like receptor ligand stimulation is substantially impaired. This functional PDC deficit, which we specifically observed in HIV-1 infected individuals with less than 500 CD4+ T cells/µl, is not well understood. We provide evidence that the peripheral IFN-alpha production in HIV-1 infection is actively suppressed by the enhanced interaction of CD40 ligand (CD40L), a member of the tumor necrosis factor family, and its receptor CD40, which are both upregulated upon immune activation. Plasma levels of soluble CD40L were significantly higher in untreated HIV-1 infected individuals (n = 52) than in subjects on long-term antiretroviral therapy (n = 62, p<0.03) and in uninfected control donors (n = 16, p<0.001). Concomitantly, cell-associated CD40L and the expression of the receptor CD40 on the PDC were significantly upregulated in HIV-1 infection (p<0.05). Soluble and cell-associated CD40L inhibited the PDC-derived IFN-alpha production by CpG oligodeoxynucleotides dose-dependently. This suppressive effect was observed at much lower, physiological CD40L concentrations in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) of HIV-1 infected individuals compared to controls (p<0.05). The CpG-induced IFN-alpha production in PBMC of HIV-1 infected donors was directly correlated with PDC and CD4+ T cell counts, and inversely correlated with the viral loads (p<0.001). In HIV-1 infected donors with less than 500 CD4+ T cells/µl, the CpG-induced IFN-alpha production was significantly correlated with the percentage of CD40-expressing PDC and the level of CD40 expression on these cells (p<0.05), whereas CD40L plasma levels played a minor role. In addition, low-dose CD40L contributed to the enhanced production of interleukin 6 and 8 in PBMC of HIV-1 infected donors compared to controls. Our data support the conclusion that the chronic immune activation in HIV-1 infection impairs peripheral PDC innate immune responses at least in part via enhanced CD40:CD40L interactions.

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