Each year, about 30,000 people in the United States contract the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS . Thankfully, most can control their HIV infections with antiretroviral therapy and will lead productive, high-quality lives. Many will even reach a point where they have no detectable levels of virus circulating in their blood. However, all must still worry that the undetectable latent virus hidden in their systems could one day reactivate and lead to a range of serious health complications.
Now, an NIH-funded team has found that patterns of sugars at the surface of our own human immune cells affect their vulnerability to HIV infection. These data suggest it may be possible to find the infected immune cells harboring the last vestiges of virus by reading the sugar profiles on their surfaces. If so, it would move us a step closer to eliminating latent HIV infection and ultimately finding a cure for this horrible virus.
These fascinating new findings come from a team led by Nadia Roan, Gladstone Institutes, San Francisco and Mohamed Abdel-Mohsen, The Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, PA. Among its many areas of study, the Roan lab is interested in why HIV favors infecting specific subsets of a special type of immune cell called memory CD4 T cells. These cells come in different varieties. They also play important roles in the immune system’s ability to recall past infections and launch a rapid response to an emerging repeat infection.
For years, her team and others have tried to understand the interplay between HIV and human immune cells primarily by studying the proteins present at the cell surface. But living cells and their proteins also are coated in sugars and, the presence or absence of these carbohydrates is essential to their biochemistry.
In the new study, published in the journal eLife, the researchers included for the first time the patterns of these sugars in their study of cell surface proteins . They, like many labs, hadn’t done so previously for technical reasons: it’s much easier to track these proteins than sugars.
To overcome this technical hurdle, Roan’s team turned to an approach that it uses for quantifying levels of proteins on the surface of single cells. The method, called CyTOF, uses metal-studded antibodies that stick to proteins, uniquely marking precise patterns of selected proteins, in this case, on individual HIV-infected cells.
In collaboration with Abdel-Mohsen, a glycobiology expert, they adapted this method for cell surface sugars. They did it by adding molecules called lectins, which stick to sugar molecules with specific shapes and compositions.
With this innovation, Roan and team report that they learned to characterize and quantify levels of 34 different proteins on the cell surface simultaneously with five types of sugars. Their next questions were: Could those patterns of cell-surface sugars help them differentiate between different types of immune cells? If so, might those patterns help to define a cell’s susceptibility to HIV?
The answer appears to be yes to both questions. Their studies revealed tremendous diversity in the patterns of sugars at the cells surfaces. Those patterns varied depending on a cell’s tissue of origin—in this case, from blood, tonsil, or the reproductive tract. The patterns also varied depending on the immune cell type—memory CD4 T cells versus other T cells or antibody-producing B cells.
Those sugar and protein profiles offered important clues as to which cells HIV prefers to infect. More specifically, compared to uninfected memory CD4 T cells, the infected ones had higher surface levels of two sugars, known as fucose  and sialic acid . What’s more, during HIV infection, levels of both sugars increased.
Scientists already knew that HIV changes the proteins that the infected memory CD4 T cell puts on its surface, a process known as viral remodeling. Now it appears that something similar happens with sugars, too. The new findings suggest the virus increases levels of sialic acid at the cell surface in ways that may help the virus to survive. That’s especially intriguing because sialic acid also is associated with a cell’s ability to avoid detection by the immune system.
The Roan and Abdel-Mohsen labs now plan to team up again to apply their new method to study latent infection. They want to find sugar-based patterns that define those lingering infected cells and see if it’s possible to target them and eliminate the lingering HIV.
What’s also cool is this study indicates that by performing single-cell analyses and sorting cells based on their sugar and protein profiles, it may be possible to discover distinct new classes of immune and other cells that have eluded earlier studies. As was the case with HIV, this broader protein-sugar profile could hold the key to gaining deeper insights into disease processes throughout the body.
 Sialic acids and other nonulosonic acids. Lewis AL, Chen X, Schnaar RL, Varki A. In Essentials of Glycobiology [Internet]. 4th edition. Cold Spring Harbor (NY): Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press; 2022.
HIV/AIDS (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)
Roan Lab (University of California, San Francisco)
NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
For almost four decades, researchers have worked tirelessly to find a cure for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS. There’s still more work to do, but a recent commentary published in JAMA  by Anthony Fauci, director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and his colleagues serves as a reminder of just how far we’ve come. Today, thanks to scientific advances, especially the development of effective antiretroviral therapy (ART), most people living with HIV can live full and productive lives. These developments have started to change how our society views HIV infection.
In their commentary, the NIH scientists describe the painstaking research that has now firmly established that people who take ART daily as prescribed, and who achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load (the amount of HIV in the blood), cannot sexually transmit the virus to others. To put it simply: Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U).
The U=U message was introduced in 2016 by the Prevention Access Campaign, an international health equity initiative that aims to help end the HIV epidemic and HIV-related social stigma. The major breakthrough in combination ART regimens, which successfully reduced viral loads for many HIV patients, came over 20 years ago. But their importance for HIV prevention wasn’t immediately apparent.
There’d been some hints of U=U, but it was the results of the NIH-funded HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN) 052, published in The New England Journal of Medicine  in 2011, that offered the first rigorous clinical evidence. Among heterosexual couples in the randomized clinical trial, no HIV transmissions to an uninfected partner were observed when ART consistently, durably suppressed the virus in the partner living with HIV.
The data provided convincing evidence that ART not only treats HIV but also prevents the sexual transmission of HIV infection. The public health implications of what’s sometimes referred to as “treatment as prevention” were obvious and exciting. In fact, the discovery made Science’s 2011 list of top 10 Breakthroughs of the Year .
Three subsequent studies, known as PARTNER 1 and 2 and Opposites Attract, confirmed and extended the findings of the HPTN 052 study. All three showed that people with HIV taking ART, who had undetectable HIV levels in their blood, had essentially no risk of passing the virus on to their HIV-negative partners.
Of course, the success of U=U depends on people with HIV having the needed access to health care and taking their medications as prescribed every day of their lives . ART works by preventing the virus from making more copies of itself. It’s important to note that achieving an undetectable viral load with treatment can take time—up to 6 months. Viral load testing should be performed on a regular basis to ensure that the virus remains at undetectable levels. If treatment is stopped, the virus typically rebounds within a matter of weeks. So, strict adherence to ART over the long term is absolutely essential.
Practically speaking, though, ART alone won’t be enough to end the spread of HIV, and other methods of HIV prevention are still needed. In fact, we’re now at a critical juncture in HIV research as work continues on preventive vaccines that could one day bring about a durable end to the pandemic.
But for now, there are more than 35 million people worldwide who are HIV positive . With currently available interventions, experts have predicted that about 50 million people around the world will become HIV positive from 2015 to 2035 . Work is proceeding actively on the vaccine, and also on ways to totally eradicate the virus from infected individuals (a “cure”), but that is proving to be extremely challenging.
Meanwhile, with continued advances, including improved accessibility to testing, adherence to existing medications, and use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) in high risk individuals, the goal is to reduce greatly the number of new cases of HIV/AIDS.
Credit: Nadia Roan, University of California, San Francisco
Researchers have learned a tremendous amount about how the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, infects immune cells. Much of that information comes from studying immune cells in the bloodstream of HIV-positive people. Less detailed is the picture of how HIV interacts with immune cells inside the lymph nodes, where the virus can hide.
In this image of lymph tissue taken from the neck of a person with uncontrolled HIV infection, you can see areas where HIV is replicating (red) amid a sea of immune cells (blue dots). Areas of greatest HIV replication are associated with a high density of a subtype of human CD4 T-cells (yellow circles) that have been found to be especially susceptible to HIV infection.