- Research article
- Open Access
- Open Peer Review
Low CD1c + myeloid dendritic cell counts correlated with a high risk of rapid disease progression during early HIV-1 infection
© Diao et al. 2015
- Received: 9 April 2015
- Accepted: 5 August 2015
- Published: 19 August 2015
During early HIV-1 infection (EHI), the interaction between the immune response and the virus determines disease progression. Although CD1c + myeloid dendritic cells (mDCs) can trigger the immune response, the relationship between CD1c + mDC alteration and disease progression has not yet been defined.
EHI changes in CD1c + mDC counts, surface marker (CD40, CD86, CD83) expression, and IL-12 secretion were assessed by flow cytometry in 29 patients.
When compared with the normal controls, patients with EHI displayed significantly lower CD1c + mDC counts and IL-12 secretion and increased surface markers. CD1c + mDC counts were positively correlated with CD4+ T cell counts and inversely associated with viral loads. IL-12 secretion was only positively associated with CD4+ T cell counts. Rapid progressors had lower counts, CD86 expression, and IL-12 secretion of CD1c + mDCs comparing with typical progressors. Kaplan-Meier analysis and Cox regression models suggested patients with low CD1c + mDC counts (<10 cells/μL) had a 4-fold higher risk of rapid disease progression than those with high CD1c + mDC counts. However, no relationship was found between surface markers or IL-12 secretion and disease progression.
During EHI, patients with low CD1c + mDC counts were more likely to experience rapid disease progression than those with high CD1c + mDC counts.
- Viral Load
- CD86 Expression
- Simian Immunodeficiency Virus
- Rapid Disease Progression
- Simian Immunodeficiency Virus Infection
Myeloid dendritic cells (mDCs) are a subset of dendritic cells (DCs) responsible for presenting antigens. They play critical roles in the induction of innate and acquired immune responses to viruses [1–4]. mDCs consist of heterogeneous cell populations, including the main subpopulation CD1c + mDCs [5, 6]. CD1c + mDCs are defined as lineage-negative (including CD3, CD14, CD16, CD19, CD20, and CD56), HLA-DR-positive, and CD1c + CD11c + cells. As one subset of mDCs, CD1c + mDCs can be stimulated by various pathogens (such as HIV-1), which results in the increase of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules and surface markers (CD40, CD86, CD83) [7, 8], and secretion of large amounts of IL-12. Such changes direct Th1 cell development and potently prime cytotoxic lymphocyte (CTLs) . If CD1c + mDC stimulation is suppressed, HIV-1 infection will progress to AIDS rapidly .
Evaluation of HIV-1 disease progression is important to identify early risk factors of disease progression and improve clinical management. HIV-1 typical progressors (TPs) take 8 to 10 years generally to progress to AIDS without antiretroviral therapy . Rapid progressors (RPs), however, progress to AIDS quicker or meet the criteria for initiation of antiretroviral treatment within the first year after seroconversion [10, 11]. The pathogenesis of HIV-infected patients with rapid progression remains unclear. Early HIV-1 infection (EHI) occurs within the first few months of HIV-1 infection typically; during EHI, HIV-specific immune responses particularly CD8+ T cells affect disease progression [12–17]. CD1c + mDCs initiate and modulate immune responses , which can induce HIV-1-specific CD8+ T cells to produce type I interferons and slow down disease progression in HIV-1 elite controllers . Previous studies have shown that CD1c + mDCs were reduced markedly in number during EHI, and HIV-exposed CD1c + mDCs were not fully activated and showed defective IL-12 production . The relationship between CD1c + mDC alteration in EHI and HIV-1 disease progression is unknown. However, the loss of mDCs in early simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) infection seems to accelerate disease progression . Therefore, we decided to focus on the relationship between CD1c + mDC alteration during EHI and disease progression.
In this study, we sought to determine whether CD1c + mDC alteration was consistent with CD4+ T cell counts or viral loads, whether CD1c + mDC alteration was evident in RPs compared with TPs, and whether CD1c + mDC alteration was associated with rapid disease progression.
Twenty-nine HIV-1 infected patients with EHI from a cohort of men who have sex with men (MSMs) were recruited for this study [10, 22]. All patients met the criteria for “early HIV-1 infection” (Fiebig stage V-VI ). Beginning in May 2009, all subjects enrolled had their viral loads and CD4+ T cell counts measured at study entry (baseline), at week 1, 2, 3, 7, 11, and 23, and once every 3 months follow-ups starting from week 23, and trial endpoint is January 2013. CD1c+ mDC counts measurement was performed at baseline. RPs were defined as HIV-1 infected individuals who had CD4+ T cell counts <350 cells/μL within the first year of infection [10, 11]. TPs were subjects whose CD4+ T cell counts remained ≥500 cells/μL at the 12-month follow-up visit . Eleven subjects consented to collect large numbers of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) for a more extensive analysis on expression of surface markers and IL-12 secretion by CD1c + mDCs. 11 normal controls (NCs) were age-matched, healthy, HIV-1 negative individuals. None of the study subjects had syphilis or was infected with hepatitis B or C virus. The study protocol and informed consent forms were approved by Ethical Review Board of the First Affiliated Hospital of China Medical University. Informed consents were obtained from all study subjects.
Counting CD1c + mDCs
CD1c + mDC counts were monitored with a single-platform TruCOUNT assay . A total of 100 μL anticoagulated whole blood was incubated with the following antibodies for 15 min in the dark at room temperature: lineage (CD3/CD14/CD16/CD19/CD20/ CD56)-FITC (all antibodies from BD Bioscience, San Jose, CA, unless otherwise noted), CD45-PerCP, HLA-DR-APC/CY7, and CD1c-PE (Biolegend, San Diego, CA). Each tube receiving 450 μl of FACS Lysing Solution was vortexed gently, and incubated for another 15 min in the dark at room temperature. At least 200,000 events were collected from each sample with BD FACS Calibur, and the data obtained were analyzed with CellQuest.
Expression of surface markers
Frozen PBMCs were thawed rapidly, washed, and then exposed to antibodies against lineage markers CD3-PerCP/CY5.5, CD19-PerCP/CY5.5, CD14-PerCP/CY5.5 (Biolegend, San Diego, CA), CD16-PerCP/CY5.5 (Biolegend, San Diego, CA), CD56-PerCP/CY5.5 (Biolegend, San Diego, CA), HLA-DR-APC/CY7, CD11c-PE/CY7 (eBioscience, San Diego, CA), CD1c-PE (Biolegend, San Diego, CA), CD40-FITC, CD86-APC, and CD83-APC. PBMCs were incubated for 30 min in the dark at 4 °C. Then, the samples were washed and fixed with 1 % paraformaldehyde. At least 200,000 events were collected from each sample with BD FACS LSRII (BD Biosciences, San Diego, CA), and the data obtained were analyzed with FlowJo (Treestar, Ashland, OR).
Cytokine IL-12 Secretion Assays
Frozen PBMCs were thawed rapidly, washed, and then stimulated with 10 μM R848 (Invitrogen, Carlsbad, CA) for 22 h . Brefeldin A was added 10 h prior to the end of the incubation period. PBMCs were exposed to antibodies against lineage markers CD3-PerCP/CY5.5, CD19-PerCP/CY5.5, CD14-PerCP/CY5.5 (Biolegend, San Diego, CA), CD16-PerCP/CY5.5 (Biolegend, San Diego, CA), CD56-PerCP/CY5.5 (Biolegend, San Diego, CA), HLA-DR-APC/CY7, CD11c-PE/CY7 (eBioscience, San Diego, CA), CD1c-PE (Biolegend, San Diego, CA) for 30 min in the dark at 4 °C. Each tube receiving 250 μL of Cytofix/Cytoperm solution was vortexed gently, and incubated for 20 min in the dark at 4 °C. The samples were then washed, exposed to antibodies against IL-12, incubated for 30 min in the dark at 4 °C, and fixed with 1 % paraformaldehyde. At least 200,000 events were collected from each sample with BD FACS LSRII, and the data obtained were analyzed with FlowJo.
Questionnaires were entered twice, and then checked for accuracy with EpiData software (the EpiData Association, Odense, Denmark, version 3.02). Data were analyzed with SPSS 17.0 software. Categorical data were described, and analyzed by frequency and a chi-square test. An independent t test was used to analyze normally distributed continuous variables between the two groups. The Mann–Whitney U test was used for analyzing non-normally distributed continuous variables. P values less than 0.05 were considered as statistically significant. For the association between baseline covariates and the primary end point (CD4+ T cell count < 350 cells/μL or the commencement of ART), Kaplan-Meier plots and Cox regression models were constructed, and subsequently adjusted for baseline covariates.
The baseline characteristics of HIV-1 infected subjects with EHI
Clinical and epidemiological characteristics of seronegative individuals, EHI patients, RPs, and TPs
NCs N = 11
EHI N = 29
RPs N = 18
TPs N = 11
P (Pa/ Pb)
Han ethnicity, no., (%)
11 (100 %)
29 (100 %)
18 (100 %)
11 (100 %)
Male gender, no., (%)
11 (100 %)
29 (100 %)
18 (100 %)
11 (100 %)
Follow-up days, days
Estimated time at baseline, days
Baseline CD4 + T cell counts, cells/μL
Baseline HIV-1 RNA load, log10 copies/mL
At 12-month follow-up visit
CD4 + T cell counts, cells/μL
HIV-1 RNA load, log10 copies/mL
At primary endpoint
Estimated time at primary endpoint, days
CD4 + T cell counts, cells/μL
HIV-1 RNA load, log10 copies/mL
The main HIV-1 subtype among the individuals was HIV_AE. The patients had a median viral load of 4.70 (3.78–5.50) log10 copies/mL, and an median CD4+ T cell count of 490 (312–568) cells/μL. CD4+ T cell counts in EHI subjects were significantly lower than those in NCs (p = 0.015) (Table 1).
The data of baseline demographic characteristics (age, race, gender) and the follow-up durations were comparable between RPs and TPs. At baseline, CD4+ T cell counts in RPs were significantly lower than those in TPs (p < 0.001), but viral load levels were similar (Table 1).
CD1c + mDC counts and IL-12 secretion in EHI subjects were associated with markers of disease progression
Next, we evaluated whether viral loads and CD4+ T cell counts, the only validated markers of progression used in HIV-1 clinic [26, 27], were correlated with CD1c + mDC counts or IL-12 secretion. CD1c + mDC counts were positively associated with CD4+ T cell counts (r = 0.572, p = 0.001), and inversely associated with viral loads (r = −0.418, p = 0.024) (Fig. 1a). However, IL-12 secretion was only positively associated with CD4+ T cell counts (r = 0.606, p = 0.048), but not with viral loads (r = −0.461, p = 0.154) (Fig. 1c). There was no relationship between surface molecule expression and CD4+ T cell counts or viral loads (data not shown).
CD1c + mDC counts and IL-12 secretion level were lower in RPs
Association between CD1c + mDC counts in EHI subjects and disease progression
Association between primary endpoint (CD4+ T cell count <350 cells/ml or commencement of long-term ART) and baseline characteristics
HR (95 % CI)
HR (95 % CI)
CD1c + mDC count (<10 versus ≥10 cells/μL)
CD4+ T cell count (<350 versus ≥350 cells/μL)
Viral load (<5 versus ≥5 log10 copies/mL)
Early plasmacytoid dendritic cell changes predict plasma HIV load rebound during primary infection , but the specific role of mDCs during early HIV-1 infection remains poorly defined. Previous data from macaques revealed that the loss of mDCs during early SIV infection was predictive of disease progression. Therefore, the goal of this study was to explore the correlation between CD1c + mDC alteration in patients with EHI and disease progression. We found CD1c + mDC counts and IL-12 secretion were positively associated with CD4+ T cell counts, and CD1c + mDC counts were inversely associated with viral loads. Furthermore, CD1c + mDC counts and IL-12 secretion level in RPs decreased comparing with those in TPs. Finally, low CD1c + mDC counts (<10 cells/μL) were associated with an increased risk of more rapid disease progression, suggesting a possible target for intervention.
While CD1c + mDC counts and IL-12 secretion decreased, the expression of several surface molecules (CD40, CD86, CD83) increased during EHI. The results were consistent with the previous studies that have demonstrated IL-12 secretion defects in mDCs, CD86 and CD83 up-regulation on monocyte-derived dendritic cells (MDDCs) [9, 10, 29–33]. However, in contrast to our results, a previous study found that mDCs of patients with EHI produced significantly higher levels of IL-12 than normal controls . It might be due to the presence or absence of the circulating immunomodulatory environment within the in vitro culture system . The influence of the extracellular milieu or apoptotic microparticles, derived from dying cells during acute HIV-1 infection, has been shown to suppress mDC function [28, 29, 35].
To our knowledge, no previous study has found that changes in mDCs correlated with either CD4+ T cell counts or viral loads during EHI [10, 31]. Our results revealed that it might be due to the heterogeneity of mDCs. CD1c + mDCs, one dominant subset of mDCs, were most closely related to CD4+ T cell counts and HIV-1 viral loads during EHI. Patients with greater CD1c + mDC counts and IL-12 secretion had higher CD4+ T cell counts and patients with greater CD1c + mDC counts had lower viral loads. However, there was no correlation between the expression of several surface markers (CD40, CD86, CD83) and CD4+ T cell counts or viral loads.
Our results also showed that CD1c + mDC counts, CD86 expression, and IL-12 secretion were significantly lower in RPs during EHI. Other studies have found similar results for mDCs and CD11c + CD16- mDCs [10, 36]. Thus, increased CD1c + mDC counts, CD86 expression, and IL-12 secretion seemed to be associated with slower disease progression. The decrease in CD1c + mDC counts observed in HIV-1-infected individuals could be due to HIV-1-induced cell death or recruitment to lymphoid organs . While the underlying cause of the faster decline of CD1c + mDC counts in RPs was unclear, the virus might induce more cell death or recruit more CD1c + mDCs to lymphoid organs. However, less IL-12 secretion in RPs could be due to a lower CD1c + mDC count or a dysfunction induced by HIV-1. Interestingly, we found that CD86 expression was higher in patients with EHI than that in normal controls, which implied that CD1c + mDCs were activated by the virus. However, CD86 expression on CD1c + mDCs was reduced in RPs by comparing with that in TPs, indicated that the virus might inactivate CD1c + mDCs. Although the mechanism was unknown, the decline of CD86 expression has been shown to inhibit CD1c + mDC maturation and suppress immune response .
Low CD1c + mDC counts (<10 cells/μL) were associated with an increased risk of more rapid disease progression. The patients with low CD1c + mDC counts had 4-fold higher odds of rapid disease progression than those with high CD1c + mDC counts. It could be due to several different mechanisms. Firstly, CD1c + mDCs had cytotoxic properties , so the decrease in CD1c + mDCs might compromise the ability of the immune system to kill virus-infected cells. Secondly, HIV-1 infected CD1c + mDCs selectively in human blood. The infected CD1c + mDCs mobilized from the blood to the lymph nodes, and then underwent apoptosis . The decline of CD1c + mDCs would weaken the immune response. Thirdly, downregulation of CD1c molecules by HIV-1 infection weakened the ability of CD1c-restricted T cells to respond to and secrete interferon-γ . We did not find that IL-12 secretion level was predictive of disease progression. However, IL-12 could promote resistance to HIV infection , and a previous study has showed that plasma IL-12 levels during acute HIV-1 infection predicted HIV disease progression . Further studies are needed to clarify the impact of IL-12 secreted by CD1c + mDCs on disease development.
Although our results did not reveal whether TP and RP patients would benefit from early ART, they did suggest that a low CD1c + mDC count (<10 cells/μL) provided important prognostic information which could be used to guide therapy. Since patients with a low CD1c + mDC count are more at risk for rapid disease progression without therapy, such patients may be more likely to benefit from early treatment.
In conclusion, CD1c + mDC counts and IL-12 secretion were positively associated with CD4+ T cell counts, and CD1c + mDC counts were inversely associated with viral loads. CD1c + mDC counts, CD86 expression, and IL-12 secretion level in RPs were lower than those in TPs. Low CD1c + mDC counts were correlated with a high risk of rapid disease progression during EHI, suggesting a potentially important prognostic marker and a promising target for intervention.
We would like to thank Bin Zhao and BioMed Proofreading, LLC for useful advices on our writing. We also thank Min Zhao provided funds for our study. This work was supported by grants through: National Natural Science Foundation of China (no. 81102231), National Natural Science Foundation of China (no. 81273238), Mega-projects of National Science Research for the 12th 5-Year Plan (2012ZX10001-006), Development Plan of Innovative Group of Misnistry of Education 2012, National Natural Science Foundation of China (no. 81201345).
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