Natural Killer Cell Receptors and Ligands Are Associated With Markers of HIV-1 Persistence in Chronically Infected ART Suppressed Patients.


The latent HIV-1 reservoir represents a major barrier to achieving a long-term antiretroviral therapy (ART)-free remission or cure for HIV-1. Natural Killer (NK) cells are innate immune cells that play a critical role in controlling viral infections and have been shown to be involved in preventing HIV-1 infection and, in those who are infected, delaying time to progression to AIDS. However, their role in limiting HIV-1 persistence on long term ART is still uncharacterized. To identify associations between markers of HIV-1 persistence and the NK cell receptor-ligand repertoire, we used twin mass cytometry panels to characterize the peripheral blood NK receptor-ligand repertoire in individuals with long-term antiretroviral suppression enrolled in the AIDS Clinical Trial Group A5321 study. At the time of testing, participants had been on ART for a median of 7 years, with virological suppression 50 copies/mL since at most 48 weeks on ART. We found that the NK cell receptor and ligand repertoires did not change across three longitudinal samples over one year-a median of 25 weeks and 50 weeks after the initial sampling. To determine the features of the receptor-ligand repertoire that associate with markers of HIV-1 persistence, we performed a LASSO normalized regression. This analysis revealed that the NK cell ligands CD58, HLA-B, and CRACC, as well as the killer cell immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIRs) KIR2DL1, KIR2DL3, and KIR2DS4 were robustly predictive of markers of HIV-1 persistence, as measured by total HIV-1 cell-associated DNA, HIV-1 cell-associated RNA, and single copy HIV-RNA assays. To characterize the roles of cell populations defined by multiple markers, we augmented the LASSO analysis with FlowSOM clustering. This analysis found that a less mature NK cell phenotype (CD16CD56CD57LILRB1NKG2C) was associated with lower HIV-1 cell associated DNA. Finally, we found that surface expression of HLA-Bw6 measured by CyTOF was associated with lower HIV-1 persistence. Genetic analysis revealed that this was driven by lower HIV-1 persistence in HLA-Bw4/6 heterozygotes. These findings suggest that there may be a role for NK cells in controlling HIV-1 persistence in individuals on long-term ART, which must be corroborated by future studies.