BackgroundQuantifying latently infected cells is critical to evaluate the efficacy of therapeutic strategies aimed at reducing the size of the long-lived viral reservoir, but the low frequency of these cells makes this very challenging.
MethodsWe developed TILDA (Tat/rev Induced Limiting Dilution Assay) to measure the frequency of cells with inducible multiply-spliced HIV RNA, as these transcripts are usually absent in latently infected cells but induced upon viral reactivation. TILDA requires less than a million cells, does not require RNA extraction and can be completed in two days.
FindingsIn suppressed individuals on ART, we found the median frequency of latently infected CD4 + T cells as estimated by TILDA to be 24 cells/million, which was 48 times more than the frequency measured by the quantitative viral outgrowth assay, and 6-27 times less than the frequencies of cells harbouring viral DNA measured by PCR-based assays. TILDA measurements strongly correlated with most HIV DNA assays. The size of the latent reservoir measured by TILDA was lower in subjects who initiated ART during the early compared to late stage of infection (p = 0.011). In untreated HIV disease, the frequency of CD4 + cells carrying latent but inducible HIV largely exceeded the frequency of actively producing cells, demonstrating that the majority of infected cells are transcriptionally silent even in the absence of ART.
InterpretationsOur results suggest that TILDA is a reproducible and sensitive approach to measure the frequency of productively and latently infected cells in clinical settings. We demonstrate that the latent reservoir represents a substantial fraction of all infected cells prior to ART initiation.
Research in contextIn this manuscript, we describe the development of a novel assay that measures the magnitude of the latent HIV reservoir, the main barrier to HIV eradication. This novel assay, termed TILDA for Tat/rev Induced Limiting Dilution Assay, requires only 10 ml of blood, does not necessitate extraction of viral nucleic acids, is highly reproducible, covers a wide dynamic range of reservoir sizes and can be completed in two days. As such, TILDA may represent an alternative to existing assays used to evaluate the efficacy of therapeutic strategies aimed at reducing the size of the latent HIV reservoir.