Age at antiretroviral therapy initiation and cell-associated HIV-1 DNA levels in HIV-1-infected children

Kuhn, Louise; Paximadis, Maria; Da Costa Dias, Bianca; Loubser, Shayne; Strehlau, Renate; Patel, Faeezah; Shiau, Stephanie; Coovadia, Ashraf; Abrams, Elaine J.; Tiemessen, Caroline T.

The latent viral reservoir is the major obstacle to achieving HIV remission and necessitates life-long antiretroviral therapy (ART) for HIV-infected individuals. Studies in adults and children have found that initiating ART soon after infection is associated with a reduction in the size of the HIV-1 reservoir. Here we quantified cell-associated HIV-1 DNA in early-treated but currently older HIV-infected children suppressed on ART.

The study participants comprised of a cohort of 146 early-treated children with HIV-1 RNA <50 copies/ml enrolled as part of a clinical trial in Johannesburg, South Africa. A stored buffy coat sample collected after a median 4.3 years on ART and where HIV-1 RNA was <50 copies/ml was tested for cell-associated HIV-1 DNA levels. An in-house, semi-nested real-time quantitative hydrolysis probe PCR assay to detect total HIV-1 subtype C proviral DNA was used. Children were followed prospectively for up to 3 years after this measurement to investigate subsequent HIV-1 RNA rebound/failure while remaining on ART. Age at ART initiation, HIV-1 RNA decline prior to HIV-1 DNA measurement and other factors were investigated.

A gradient between age at ART initiation and later HIV-1 DNA levels was observed. When ART was started <2 months of age, the lowest levels of cell-associated HIV-1 DNA (median 1.4 log10copies/106 cells, interquartile range [IQR] 0.95–1.55) were observed compared to ART started at 2–4 months (median 1.68, IQR 1.26–1.97) or 5–14 months of age (median1.98, IQR 1.69–2.25). A low CD4 T-cell count pre-treatment predicted higher levels of HIV-1 DNA on later testing. The probability of HIV-1 RNA rebound >50 copies/ml whilst on ART within 3 years after the DNA measurement was 2.07 (95% CI: 1.352–3.167) times greater if the HIV-1 DNA level was above the median of 55 copies/106 cells.

Cell-associated HIV-1 DNA levels measured after more than 4 years on ART were lower the younger the age of the child when ART was initiated. This marker of the size of the viral reservoir also predicted subsequent viral rebound/treatment failure while ART was sustained. The results provide additional evidence of the benefits of prompt diagnosis and early ART initiation in newborns and infants.


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