HIV-1 infection: Is it time to reconsider our concepts?
The long asymptomatic phase of HIV infection is critical in the progression to AIDS. It probably reflects an ancestral relationship with lentiviruses stemming from the primate-simian immunodeficiency virus evolutionary pathway leading to an idiosyncratic immune tolerance, which needs to be understood if effective vaccines are to be rationally designed. The majority of CD4(+) T cells that die due to HIV-1 in the asymptomatic phase are not infected with the virus. Transmission of the predominant HIV-1 R5 variants to T cells is mediated by infected monocyte-derived macrophages. The two cell populations come into intimate contact mainly in the lymph nodes during antigen presentation where there is also active viral replication. We propose that HIV exploits antigen presentation to access target T cells and evade immune surveillance. This is achieved at the assembly point of an immunological synapse between an antigen presenting, HIV-1-infected macrophage and a responding effector/memory CD4(+) T cell. Viral envelope gp120 glycoproteins proximal to MHC 11 molecules cross-link with T cell CD4 molecules, thus establishing a supra molecular immuno-viral synapse. The interaction results in conformational changes of gp120 exposing its V3 domain. Ionic interaction of this domain with the synapse-recruited chemokine receptor CCR5 dimerizes the receptor triggering intracellular signals that contribute to T cell receptor transactivation pathways and subsequent enhancement of T cell activation. HIV-downregulated MHC H gives weak immune complexes. Disruption of the immunoviral synapse before completion of cell entry is a frequent outcome condemning the responding T cell to a premature activation-induced T cell death. Information on the assembly, mechanistic and functional interactions at the immuno-viral synapses may well assist in elucidating new strategies to combat HIV infection.