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Gut and blood differ in constitutive blocks to HIV transcription, suggesting tissue-specific differences in the mechanisms that govern HIV latency.


Latently-infected CD4+ T cells are widely considered to be the major barrier to a cure for HIV. Much of our understanding of HIV latency comes from latency models and blood cells, but most HIV-infected cells reside in lymphoid tissues such as the gut. We hypothesized that tissue-specific environments may impact the mechanisms that govern HIV expression. To assess the degree to which different mechanisms inhibit HIV transcription in the gut and blood, we quantified HIV transcripts suggestive of transcriptional interference (U3-U5; "Read-through"), initiation (TAR), 5' elongation (R-U5-pre-Gag; "Long LTR"), distal transcription (Nef), completion (U3-polyA; "PolyA"), and multiple splicing (Tat-Rev) in matched peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) and rectal biopsies, and matched FACS-sorted CD4+ T cells from blood and rectum, from two cohorts of ART-suppressed individuals. Like the PBMCs, rectal biopsies showed low levels of read-through transcripts (median = 23 copies/106 cells) and a gradient of total (679)>elongated(75)>Nef(16)>polyadenylated (11)>multiply-spliced HIV RNAs(<1) [p<0.05 for all], demonstrating blocks to HIV transcriptional elongation, completion, and splicing. Rectal CD4+ T cells showed a similar gradient of total>polyadenylated>multiply-spliced transcripts, but the ratio of total to elongated transcripts was 6-fold lower than in blood CD4+ T cells (P = 0.016), suggesting less of a block to HIV transcriptional elongation in rectal CD4+ T cells. Levels of total transcripts per provirus were significantly lower in rectal biopsies compared to PBMCs (median 3.5 vs. 15.4; P = 0.008) and in sorted CD4+ T cells from rectum compared to blood (median 2.7 vs. 31.8; P = 0.016). The lower levels of HIV transcriptional initiation and of most HIV transcripts per provirus in the rectum suggest that this site may be enriched for latently-infected cells, cells in which latency is maintained by different mechanisms, or cells in a "deeper" state of latency. These are important considerations for designing therapies that aim to disrupt HIV latency in all tissue compartments.

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