Cytotoxic CD8+ T Cells expressing CXCR5 are detectable in HIV-1 elite controllers after prolonged in vitro peptide stimulation.
Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is not curative as HIV-1 persists in long-lived viral reservoirs. Consequently, patients are dependent on life-long drug adherence with possible side effects. To overcome these limitations strategies of a functional cure aim at ART free viral remission. In this study, we sought to identify detailed subsets of anti-viral CD8(+) T cell immunity linked to natural long-term control of HIV-1 infection. Here, we analyzed HIV controllers and ART suppressed progressors for in vitro viral suppressive capacity (VSC) at baseline and after peptide stimulation. Functional properties and phenotypes of CD8(+) T cells were assessed by IFN-gamma ELISPOT and 18 color flow cytometry. HIV controllers showed significantly increased suppression at baseline as well as after peptide stimulation. IFN-gamma secretion and the proliferation marker Ki67 positively correlated with VSC. Moreover, the detailed phenotype of three distinct multifunctional memory CD8(+) T cell subsets were specific traits of HIV controllers of which two correlated convincingly with VSC. Our results underline the importance of multifunctional CD8(+) T cell responses during natural control. Especially the role of CXCR5 expressing cytotoxic subsets emphasizes potential surveillance in sites of reservoir persistence and demand further study.