Measuring lymphocyte activation provides information in addition to CD4(+) T-cell count for immune monitoring of HIV-1 infected patients. CD38 is a well-established activation marker that is generally analyzed on the whole population of CD8(+) T-cells. Focusing specifically on CD38 high expression (CD8(+)/CD38(bright)) may be an interesting surrogate gating strategy because CD38(bright) characterizes principally activated memory cells.
CD8(+)/CD38(bright) was investigated in 1,353 HIV-1 infected patients over a one-year period to establish relevant cutoff values and clarify the relationships of this marker with HIV-1 RNA viral load (VL) and CD4(+) T-cell count.
The CD8(+)/CD38(bright) (>8,500 CD38 binding site per cells) is well correlated with HIV-1 VL (r = 0.87, P < 0.001) in this longitudinal follow-up of nonimmunodepressed patients that initiated antiviral therapy (ART). In aviremic patients on ART, the marker was highly predictive of VL rebound (sensitivity 93%, specificity 64% for a VL level of detection >200 copies/ml). While the CD8(+)/CD38(bright) moderately correlated with CD4(+) T-cell count independently of the VL (r = -0.37, P < 0.001), it increased dramatically in aviremic patient groups that exhibited profound CD4(+) T-cell depletion (median 39% for CD4(+) T-cell counts <50/mm(3)). This result indicates that other additional immunological and/or viral factors than readily detectable HIV-1 replication appears to be involved in T-cell activation of immunodepressed individuals.
CD8(+)/CD38(bright) is an effective marker for monitoring T-cell activation, which is a central factor of HIV-1 pathogenesis. This gating strategy requires only a single additional staining in conventional four color CD4 protocols.