A very similar article has been posted at the aidsperspective site.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, is an HIV prevention intervention in which anti-HIV drugs are taken to prevent infection. A safe, effective and affordable drug that could achieve this would be a powerful prevention intervention even possibly capable of halting the spread of the epidemic.
Last week we were told the results of the iPrEx trial that tested the efficacy of PrEP with Truvada, a combination of two anti-HIV drugs, in reducing new HIV infections among a group of men who have sex with men considered to be at high risk for HIV infection.
The announcement of the results was greeted with almost universal jubilation.
“That’s huge,” said a prominent AIDS researcher, “That says it all for me.”
“Today marks a major step forward in our quest to combat HIV among MSM
“This discovery alters the HIV prevention landscape forever,”
“….. the new data “represents the most promising development in HIV/AIDS since the introduction of triple combination drug therapy in 1996.”
“This is a game-changing trial result,”
Science magazine reported that..
“The researchers applauded and some even cried when they heard the bottom line”; “I have not cried this hard in years” – said one researcher.
These exultant cheers are usually reserved for the most momentous of breakthroughs.
Demonstrating that a drug could be safe and effective in preventing infection would indeed be a momentous breakthrough as already noted.
But the iPrEx results, far from representing such a breakthrough, indicated that PrEP, at least with Truvada, together with counselling and provision of condoms, reduced new HIV infections among men who have sex with men only modestly. It’s unlikely that the 44% reduction in new infections that was seen is of sufficient magnitude to make PrEP with Truvada viable as a public health prevention intervention. Moreover, as will be described there are significant safety concerns, a demonstrated danger of the emergence of drug resistant HIV, and the drug is far from affordable.
A 44% reduction in new infections is not huge; even those extolling the trial results would agree (at least I think they would, but who knows considering the over-the-top responses).
But what is most troubling is that the researchers have squeezed an efficacy of Truvada of over 90% by a questionable statistical sleight of hand, an improper use of sub-group analysis, a technique of data dredging that has been soundly discredited. I’ll return to this.
This has resulted in headlines such as “PrEP works – if you take your pills”, I don’t know if this will persuade some people to abandon condoms and religiously take their pills. Unfortunately, as will be explained, the type of subgroup analysis that apparently allowed investigators and commentators to confidently claim a greater efficacy of PrEP is not reliable. Maybe consistent use of Truvada will reduce new infections by over 90%. Maybe not.
For the moment staying with the ability to reduce new infections by 44%: As a public health intervention to be used on a wide scale, this degree if efficacy is just not good enough to justify using Truvada to prevent a life threatening infection. Even if the risk of infection is low this must be balanced against the gravity of the infection. About 3% of participants in the Truvada arm of the trial became infected as opposed to about 5% among those receiving placebo.
Perhaps it’s on this issue that I’m at odds with the huge acclaim given to the trial results. Maybe the prevailing view is that a 44% reduction in new infections is indeed good enough; some commentators are even discussing implementation.
PreP proponents like to compare it to malaria prophylaxis. If the efficacy of malaria prophylaxis were of the same order as that of Truvada in relation to HIV, I suspect many people might think twice before visiting an area where there was a risk of malaria.
Let’s take a closer look at the trial results, particularly the claimed greater degree of efficacy in compliant participants reported in the New England Journal of medicine.
I have commented briefly on this in my blog on the POZ magazine website.
The medication used in the trial, Truvada, is a combination of two anti-HIV drugs, FTC and tenofovir. It was compared with placebo in over 2000 men who have sex with men, considered to be at high risk for HIV infection.
The 44% reduction in new infections was achieved in conjunction with counselling, provision of condoms and monthly tests to monitor for infection.
This is not a good enough performance to justify widespread use of Truvada to protect against infection. The investigators then looked at blood and tissue levels of the drugs in people who became infected and those who did not. They found that those who remained uninfected had detectable drug levels while those who became infected did not.
They incautiously trumpeted this result as proving that Truvada works well if the pills are taken consistently – stating that in those who took their pills more consistently the relative risk reduction was well over 90%.
On the surface this sounds good. Almost all the commentators thought so.
However looking at the results in a sub-group of participants can be misleading. Most particularly in a sub-group that is defined after randomization; who would or would not comply with treatment could not have been known. The problems with subgroup analyses will be clearer after a short account of intention to treat analysis.
Intention to treat analysis is the most reliable way to analyse clinical trial data. In such an analysis participants are analysed in the group to which they were randomized, irrespective of whether they dropped out, or didn’t adhere to the treatment or strayed from the protocol in other ways. This seems counter-intuitive, but there are sound reasons why intention to treat is regarded as the best way to analyse trial data, among them that it more reliably reflects what happens in real life, rather than in a clinical trial. For example, one reason why pills may not work is because they are not taken. If they are not taken in a trial we have to be concerned that they may not be taken in real life. Take a look at this excellent explanation of intention to treat: Making sense of intention to treat.
As noted, the trial investigators made a lot of the sub-group analysis showing greater efficacy in those who took Truvada pills as measured by finding the drugs in blood and tissue samples.
This is surprising as the pitfalls inherent in such post-hoc sub-group analyses have been recognized for years. Commentators, some of whom are clinical researchers, in their over-the-top exultation at the results of the analysis in those compliant with Truvada may have forgotten about the treachery inherent in sub group analysis. A few commentators give the problem only passing acknowledgement.
This is a classic paper on sub group analysis:
Yusuf S, Wittes J, Probstfield J, Tyroler HA: Analysis and interpretation of treatment effects in subgroups of patients in randomized clinical trials.
Journal of the American Medical Association 1991 , 266:93-98
This is from that paper:
“Analysis of improper subgroups, though seductive, can be extremely misleading, because a particular treatment effect may influence classification to the subgroup. Thus, an apparent subgroup effect may not be a true effect of treatment but rather the result of inherent characteristics of patients that led to a particular response or to the development of side effects”.
In iPrEx the subgroups were categorized by events that happened after randomization, so the adherent group is an “improper” subgroup. “Subgroups of clinical trial subjects identified by baseline characteristics … is a proper subgroup while a subgroup determined by post randomization events or measures is an improper subgroup”.
In actuality the attention given to the subgroup that had blood and tissue drug levels is an example of the treachery of such sub-group analyses.
As an illustration, the reduction in new infections seen in this group may well have resulted from the following possibility.
People who take their pills consistently are more likely to use condoms consistently and in general are more attentive to risk. So if it were possible to do a subgroup analysis of people who adhered to placebo we might conclude that the placebo also works – (and it’s cheaper).
This is not so fanciful.
“In one study , those who adhered to the trial drug (clofibrate) had reduced
mortality; but those who adhered to the placebo pill had the same reduction in mortality”.
This is from:
Coronary Drug Project Research Group. Influence of adherence to treatment
and response of cholesterol on mortality in the coronary drug
project. Engl J Med 1980;303:1038-1041
A classic example of the pitfalls of subgroup analysis is what it demonstrated in ISIS-2, a trial examining the effects of aspirin after myocardial infarction. A subgroup analysis showed it was of benefit to all except people who were either Libras or Geminis.
Maybe Truvada taken consistently can reduce new infections by over 90%; maybe not. There was no basis for the investigators and commentators to present the first possibility with such overwhelming confidence.
We must accept that a 44% reduction in new infections is at this time the most reliable estimate of Truvada’s efficacy as PrEP. Although, the confidence interval , a measure of reliability, was wide.
We have an intervention that can reduce new infections by 44%, if taken in conjunction with a program of counselling, condom use, and monthly tests for HIV infection. That is the benefit. What about the down side?
The two most important are the development of resistance of HIV to the component drugs of Truvada and the toxicity of the drugs.
The utility in treating HIV infection of FTC and tenofovir – Truvada’s component drugs is lost if the virus becomes resistant to the drugs. Moreover, some mutations conferring resistance to these drugs can also affect sensitivity to some other drugs. The danger of resistance, and even cross resistance to other drugs developing when Truvada is used as PrEP is not a trivial concern. Truvada used as PrEP provides a suboptimal dose in treating established HIV infections. This is precisely the situation in which resistance is likely to develop. There were in fact two instances of developed resistance in the iPrEx trial in individuals who became infected, but undetected before the trial began.
Resistant viruses in the community are a danger to all, so the risk of generating resistance is not confined to the individual taking Truvada as PrEP.
What about safety?
The claim in many reports that Truvada is without significant toxicity is also misleading.
Maybe poor adherence has some bearing on the lack of significant toxicity.
A median of 1.2 years exposure to Truvada can tell us little about cumulative and long term effects. Experience with long term use of Truvada in HIV infected people makes concern about toxicity realistic. Renal toxicity, sometimes severe occurs not uncommonly. It’s mostly but not always reversible on stopping the drug. Thinning of bones, osteopenia and osteoporosis is also seen. There are additional adverse effects associated with the drugs.
There were small abnormalities in some parameters measuring kidney function among those treated with Truvada. Although these changes were reversible on stopping the drug, the fact that they were seen at all is a reason for great concern about the effects of longer term treatment.
With the experience we have gained from longer term treatment with Truvada, it is disingenuous to stress its overall safety from just 1.2 years of very inconsistent use.
It’s important to point out that for HIV infected individuals, the benefits of treatment with Truvada far outweigh the risks. For uninfected individuals, an entirely different risk benefit analysis must be made.
Despite the disappointing results of iPrEx, PrEP is important.
Why is PrEP important?
There are at least two important reasons.
PrEP could protect receptive partners in sexual intercourse, both men and women, who are unable to ensure that a condom is used by their partner and for a variety of reasons are unable to refuse sex . The best and most respectful way of addressing this would be to find ways to empower these individuals; in some way providing them with the means to protect themselves could be seen to also have the effect of perpetuating their subjugation and abuse.
But there are women and men who need protection now and providing them with a means to prevent infection that they can control is vital. This can go hand in hand with working to empower them and helping them to try to ameliorate or leave abusive relationships.
Sex is one of life’s joys. It is vitally important to the human experience.
Condoms can be a barrier to intimacy which for many is the most essential aspect of sexual intercourse, for both receptive and insertive partners. So recommending the use of condoms without acknowledging the significant obstacle they may present to a fulfilling sexual experience is a real problem. Pleasure is part of that fulfilment and for some insertive partners condoms are a significant impediment to experiencing it. A fully effective and safe means of pre-exposure prophylaxis may also allow the removal of a barrier to conception.
But people are different; for example some individuals have found that condoms can increase intimacy in the reassurance they provide concerning their and their partners safety.
We should never minimize or trivialize the difficulties condoms can present. We should also keep in mind that their use is the most effective means of preventing sexual transmission of HIV.
Their use will remain necessary in order to remain uninfected until we are free from HIV or a safe an effective PrEP method can be found.
These considerations, a prevention method that the receptive partner can control, allow conception and remove an impediment to full sexual expression are some reasons to work towards finding a safe and effective form of PrEP.
Truvada unfortunately has not proved to be sufficiently effective and safe.
A few words about prevention education and condoms:
The consistent use of condoms is the most effective means to prevent sexual transmission of HIV.
PrEP proponents agree but many go on to say that people just don’t use condoms consistently. This is an attitude that has apparently concluded that prevention education does not work, and more importantly, cannot work.
But how can one conclude that it cannot work when there has been so little of it? This has some analogy with the claims made for the efficacy of Truvada. It works, if you take the pills
If prevention education has been a failure, it’s not because it doesn’t work, but because we have not provided it well enough. There has been too little and most has not been properly targeted.
Proper targeting to those most at risk is critical. I have written about this. We need more and better prevention education.
The CDC now tells us that the group at greatest risk by far in the US is men who have sex with men. Nothing has changed except the ethnic distribution, so why are they only telling this to us now? For over twenty years we were told that AIDS was an equal opportunity infection making prevention education targeted to those at greatest risk even more difficult.
It’s only now, 25 years too late, that the CDC appears to recognize the urgency of providing prevention education to gay men.
Neglect of properly targeted prevention education, with encouragement for condom use and continuing support to sustain their use helped to allow the spread of HIV into African American communities in plain view while millions were spent on “America Responds to AIDS” a vacuous prevention message.
Similarly we have known for years that in the US younger men who have sex with men are at particular risk. We know where to target prevention messages, but we don’t it well enough.
We know that highly targeted prevention education, when crafted by the communities at greatest risk can work. This was demonstrated in the earliest years of the epidemic in San Francisco and New York City.
In 1982 when Michael Callen, Richard Berkowitz and I first recommended condom use to gay men in New York City, we stressed that in doing so it was important to celebrate sex, recognizing that for some individuals condom use, or perhaps more precisely, HIV, could present a barrier to its full expression. We have come far in freeing ourselves from long standing societal constraints that for too many have stood in the way of a fulfilling sexual experience burdening it instead with guilt. It’s important to take care in providing continuing support for condom use and recognize that for many they do get in the way. But it’s really HIV that’s getting in the way, and consistent condom use can help to bring it to an end.
Finding conditions where sex without condoms is safe is important. On the showing of iPrEx – despite its ecstatic reception, PrEP unfortunately is not yet ready.
At the moment consistent condom use is the best protection there is.
The often uncritical response to iPrEx should not persuade anyone that Truvada is a safe and effective alternative.
iPrEx is a large and complicated study. The investigators deserve the highest praise for completing this phase and having provided a result. It may not be the result so many hoped for. But providing clear information is a major advance.
This blog more or less duplicates that at the aidsperspective.net site, explained in the “about” page above.
HIV Disease and Positive Feedback. An additional comment.
AUGUST 31ST 2010
A previous post focussed on the positive feedback interaction between HIV replication and immune activation. HIV replication and immune activation reciprocally enhance each other.
While HIV infection is an essential cause of the immune activation that’s characteristic of HIV disease, there are other factors that also contribute to it. In that post as well as in the blog I write on the POZ magazine website, I described some of these additional factors that can add to immune activation. As noted, viruses of the herpesvirus family, cytomegalovirus (CMV) in particular are the most important of these worldwide, while in parts of Africa certain endemic infections may be of great significance in contributing to immune activation.
Since sustained immune activation, involving both innate and adaptive immunity is at the heart of the pathogenesis of HIV disease an understanding of how it is perpetuated is critical.
Evidence for activation of innate immunity was noted in 1981, the year that AIDS was first reported, in the detection of large amounts of alpha interferon in the circulation of patients. We even knew then that interferon alpha and gamma could induce an enzyme, indole 2,3-dioxygenase (IDO), (IDO was known to be responsible for the inhibition of toxoplasma gondii by depletion of tryptophan in cells treated with gamma interferon) but we did not know then that this enzyme could contribute to the loss of T lymphocytes. Another observation of historical interest is that even before AIDS was first reported in 1981, interferon was known to preferentially inhibit CD4 lymphocyte proliferation in mixed lymphocyte culture.
Since immune activation and its effects, including inflammation, are harmful if sustained, there are mechanisms that can dampen it.
But in HIV disease, immune activation persists with continued deleterious consequences.
The reason I’m revisiting this now is that there is a question that continues to be bothersome.
HIV disease is not the only infection associated with long standing immune activation.
Several endemic infections in Africa are also associated with sustained immune activation, certainly not all – some even have a dampening effect on immune responses. TB is another example of an infection associated with chronic immune activation. In none of these conditions is there such a profound loss of CD4 lymphocytes as in HIV disease. While individuals with active pulmonary TB have been reported to have lower CD4 counts than healthy individuals, the numbers were well above 500.
Is the difference between sustained immune activation associated with HIV and that associated with other chronic infections in HIV negative individuals a matter of degree – is it a quantitative difference?
Could the mechanisms that dampen and check immune activation be impaired in HIV disease? These mechanisms include the secretion of cytokines that have anti-inflammatory properties, such as IL-10, IL-13, and TGF-beta, among others. Specialized immune system cells can also dampen immune activation. Tregs, a subset of T lymphocytes, have such a dampening effect. Although there are conflicting reports on the relationship of Tregs to HIV disease, it is known that HIV targets some of these particular T lymphocytes.
This graphic comes from my earlier post on positive feedback characteristics of HIV disease.
In this diagram HIV pathogenesis is represented by a circular process moving in a clockwise direction. It is started by HIV infection and can be propelled by a positive feedback association between HIV replication with immune activation. Immune activation is reinforced by CMV, and in certain settings, by some endemic infections. This is represented by the + sign in the diagram. Immune activation is retarded by those influences that dampen the immune response, including anti-inflammatory cytokines and Tregs, represented by the – sign in the diagram.
Here is a revised version of this diagram:
HIV disease progression is represented as moving clockwise in a circle, reinforced by sources of immune activation other than HIV and retarded by Tregs and other mechanisms that dampen immune responses. Tregs act as brakes, but HIV can directly make the brakes less effective.
Could critical differences between HIV disease and other infectious causes of long standing immune activation where CD4 numbers are relatively preserved, be the preferential targeting of Tregs by HIV and a different pattern of cytokine secretion?
I wonder if this revised representation of HIV disease lends itself to a more formal modelling process.
In this particular model a disease process is represented by a circular motion in a clockwise direction, with forces that both propel and retard it. Some predictions can be made.
The degree of immune activation at the time of HIV seroconversion would favour more rapid HIV disease progression. The set point – the level from which CD4 lymphocytes decline following an acute HIV infection, would be lower, and the subsequent rate of CD4 decline higher when HIV infection occurs in a person where there already is a higher degree of immune activation, compared to an individual where this is not the case. There already is some evidence in support of this possibility.
It’s well established that HIV disease progresses more rapidly with increasing age. Could an explanation for this be that immune activation increases with age – indeed, it’s been suggested that immune activation contributes to the aging process.
HIV disease progresses more rapidly in individuals with active TB. CMV viremia was noted to carry an adverse prognostic significance in HIV disease very early in the epidemic. There are but two examples, but there are many more of of a more rapid course of HIV disease in the setting of other infections caused by bacteria, protozoa, viruses and helminthes. Some are referred to in a previous post.
Are Treg numbers at seroconversion and for a period immediately afterwards related to subsequent disease progression?
Could treatment with anti CMV agents during acute HIV infection retard subsequent disease progression?
There already is some evidence that treatment of HIV during acute infection might slow the subsequent course of HIV disease.
The utility of any model of a disease process lies in its ability to provide a common explanation for disparate observations as well as to make predictions that can be tested by an analysis of available data or by experimentation.
Viewing HIV disease as a process with a positive feedback interaction between HIV replication and immune activation with forces that both enhance and retard this interconnection, provides a useful descriptive framework as well as testable predictions.
The revised USPHS guidelines for the treatment of HIV/AIDS
Guidelines for the treatment of HIV/AIDS were first issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) in 1998. They have undergone numerous revisions since then; the most recent was in December 2009.
The first guidelines were issued shortly after potent antiviral medications became available. We knew very little about how best to use these drugs at that time, and with only a few years experience our knowledge of their adverse effects was understandably limited.
Perhaps the only reliable information we then had was that individuals with fewer than 200 CD4 lymphocytes received a life saving benefit from their use.
Despite such limited information the panel that had been convened to write the guidelines made firm recommendations for the use of antiviral drugs in groups of patients for whom evidence of a net benefit was lacking.
Even in the absence of experience with the newer antiviral agents, at least two probable problems associated with their use could have been anticipated in 1997. The propensity of just about any microorganism to develop resistance to antimicrobial agents was no mystery. Nor was it a surprise that adverse reactions to new drugs appeared as they were used for longer periods.
As might have been anticipated healthier HIV infected individuals have not infrequently had to deal with both of these problems.
Why then did the first HIV/AIDS treatment guidelines panel not propose and encourage the conduct of a randomized prospective clinical trial to answer the question of whether immediate or deferred treatment with antiviral drugs could or could not prolong life and improve its quality or made no difference apart from cost?
Since the problems that were to arise could have been anticipated, if not their extent, the guidelines committee must have accepted that whatever evidence existed was sufficient to reassure them that there would be a net benefit to starting treatment at 500 CD4 lymphocytes.
The most recent revision of the DHHS guidelines now propose, as the first guidelines did, that treatment be initiated at a CD4 count of 500. A prospective randomized trial that directly addresses the question of when treatment is best initiated has yet to be completed. In the absence of information from such a trial the committee has relied on evidence from some large retrospective observational studies.
In the next post John Falkenberg writes about some previous experiences where advice based on results of retrospective analyses of observational data had to be reversed when the results of randomized controlled studies became available.
I believe the biggest mistake made in 1997 by the guidelines committee was in not responding to the very real possibilities of dangers associated with early treatment initiation by encouraging the completion of a prospective randomized trial, such as START, that could by now have reliably provided an answer to the question of whether immediate or deferred treatment is better or worse or makes no difference that is, apart from cost.
It’s not the benefits of early treatment that are in question. Of course there are benefits, but the question we need an answer to is when in the course of HIV disease the benefits of treatment outweigh the risks.
Long term exposure to antiretroviral drugs can have harmful effects. It can take many years to recognize some of these adverse effects. For example we learned only in the last few months that under certain circumstances neurocognitive function improved in some people who stopped antiviral drugs (ACTG 5170).
So the challenge is to find out how best to use the drugs. Put another way, we must find ways to safely minimize exposure to the drugs, which until we have drugs without significant adverse effects, is what determining the optimal time to start treatment is all about. We don’t know if a person deferring treatment until a CD4 count of 350 will or will not live longer with an overall better or worse quality of life than someone starting at 800 or even 500 CD4s.
We do know that at 350 CD4s, benefits of treatment far outweigh risks. But no matter what NIH guidelines committee members may feel, we do not yet have the most reliable evidence that benefits of treatment will outweigh risks when starting at higher numbers.
The wording of the USPHS guidelines is such that depending on whose vote one goes with, I suppose might even be interpreted to mean a recommendation for every HIV positive individual to receive treatment irrespective of CD4 count.
A letter written to the DHHS panel in 1997 suggesting that a randomized prospective trial be encouraged to provide guidance for individuals with greater than 200 CD4 lymphocytes remained unanswered although received.
Sadly the repeated changes to the guidelines since their first appearance in 1998 appear to indicate a retreat from evidence-based recommendations. Maybe this should be stated as a retreat from attempting to find the most reliable evidence on which to base recommendations. The guidelines panel go to great lengths to reassure us that their recommendations are indeed evidence based.
But as they recognize, the quality of evidence can vary. They also recognize that evidence of the highest quality is derived from the results of prospective randomized trials. Yet not only do they not vigorously encourage the completion of such trials, their recommendations actually inhibit enrolment into START which is such a trial.
Unfortunately the DHHS recommendations while not binding have a huge influence. Remarkably they are even regarded by some as setting an ethical standard, so that fears have been expressed that enrolment into START might be considered unethical as the current guidelines revision recommend starting treatment at 500 CD 4 lymphocytes.
Thirteen years after the first guidelines were issued, the DHHS panel has now made revisions that continues to threaten enrolment into a randomized controlled trial that will provide clear guidance to HIV positive individuals and their doctors about when to initiate antiviral therapy.
Surely, when we recognize that reliable evidence is lacking to inform a very important clinical decision, is it not our obligation to seek the evidence, rather than settle for the uncertainties associated with evidence of inferior quality? This is not only for the benefit of our patients but also to affirm that our stated respect for evidence-based recommendations is more than lip service.
At this time the DHHS guidelines are the only ones that recommend a start to treatment at 500 CD4 lymphocytes.
The DHHS guidelines have been of benefit to people with HIV/AIDS. But on the issue of when to start antiviral therapy they have not best served the interests of HIV positive individuals.
We need a randomized controlled trial to answer this question, not the votes of a committee.
I believe that many health care providers would welcome the opportunity to be able to present an option to their patients with greater than 350 CD4s, to enrol in a study such as START.
At the end of the day, determining when it’s best to start is not something you vote on. It’s something so important that you nail it down with a trial such as START.
2nd April, 2010
There is a similar and slightly extended version of this post on the blog I have on the POZ website. It’s in two parts:
HIV infection and many other infections caused by a wide variety of microorganisms have a mutually enhancing relationship that is characteristic of positive feedback systems.
Although the reciprocal enhancing effects of HIV and other infections have been frequently described since the late 1980s, it is useful to explicitly recognize these as positive feedback systems as this highlights the implications they have for treatment of individuals and for control of the epidemic. Explicitly recognizing the positive feedback characteristic of HIV disease also provides a way of looking at pathogenesis that can suggest further studies, both clinical and laboratory, that might advance our understanding of mechanisms of disease acquisition.
This is an illustration of positive feedback. A stimulates B which in turn stimulates A. In this way the effects of A and B are increased.
The infections associated with the immunological disorders of HIV disease are generally, but not solely, caused by microorganisms that replicate within cells. Many of the organisms that cause these infections survive in healthy people without causing disease, prevented from doing so by a competent immune system. When the immune system fails these infectious agents start to divide. They may then cause disease. An additional effect of some of these active infections is to accelerate the replication of HIV. Several mechanisms are responsible for this effect, which can then result in further immunological deterioration.
In addition, co-infection with many of the pathogens that also affect individuals with intact immune systems can also promote HIV replication.
Not all co- infections result in a more rapid progression of HIV disease. Many have no effect and a few have even been reported to cause a temporary improvement of HIV disease. This may be the case with measles, scrub typhus and a form of transfusion associated hepatitis. But more often, when an effect of a co-infection has been noted, it has been to promote HIV disease progression.
Different co-infections can therefore affect the course of HIV disease in different ways. Some may have no impact on the course of HIV disease; a few may possibly cause a temporary amelioration. Those that are able to accelerate it are highly prevalent in HIV infected individuals.
Worldwide, viruses of the herpes family are probably the most important of the co-infections that interact with HIV in a mutually enhancing fashion. . Virtually all adults are infected with some of these viruses that usually exist in a latent or dormant state. They are readily activated in the setting of HIV infection and then promote further HIV replication by a number of different mechanisms.
In developing nations a range of different endemic infections, depending on geography, may be just as important; many can also accelerate HIV disease progression. Conversely, HIV infection can promote progression of some endemic infections.
Several different mechanisms have been uncovered that can explain the effects of co-infections on promoting HIV replication. With such a wide range of infections, the precise ways in which each do this will vary in detail.
However there is one characteristic possessed by all HIV potentiating infections. This is their ability to add to the immune activation that is a feature of progressive HIV disease.
By now I think it is generally accepted that chronic immune activation not only results from HIV infection but is a major contributor to the pathogenesis of HIV disease. A state of sustained high level immune activation is the basis of the chronic inflammation and immunologic deterioration characteristic of progressive HIV disease.
But what exactly is immune activation?
Immune activation refers to those changes that take place in the immune system when exposed to an infectious agent that allow it to eliminate or control the infection. Essentially, the immune system is activated from a resting state to fight an infection. Generally this process will last for days until the infection is overcome, and usually but not always, is followed by a lifelong immunity to the infectious agent.
However in progressive HIV disease the immune system continues to be activated at a high level and it is this sustained immune activation that eventually results in disease. An activated state of the immune system is characterized by differentiation of precursor immune system cells. Differentiation is the process by which these cells develop specialized functions. Examples of cells that have acquired specialized functions are those that produce specific antibodies, or those with the ability to kill other cells infected with specific microorganisms. Proliferation of immune system cells is an important characteristic of an activated state. This is usually a short-term response subsiding with control of the infection that stimulated it. But in progressive HIV disease, proliferation is sustained, probably with episodic cycles of further accelerations, and this continued proliferation contributes to the loss of immune system cells.
These cellular changes, differentiation and proliferation, are associated with the secretion of a variety of cytokines. Cytokines are molecules that can change the behaviour of cells by binding to specific receptors on their surfaces, for example, causing them to divide. Once released, cytokines not only attach to receptors on other cells but can also come back and attach to the receptors on the cell that produced it.
The cytokines that are released have widespread effects. Importantly, they include those that are associated with inflammatory changes, – the pro-inflammatory cytokines. With respect to positive feedback, pro-inflammatory cytokines including IL-6 and TNF alpha are able to accelerate HIV replication.
A part of the immune system, the innate immune system, responds immediately to infection by recognizing molecular patterns common to different organisms. The more familiar adaptive immune system responds to specific characteristics unique to each organism.
The innate immune system is also activated in untreated HIV infection. Interestingly effects of activation of innate immunity were recognized very early in the epidemic, even before HIV was discovered, and so are among the earliest recognized AIDS related immunological abnormalities. Activated innate immunity is responsible for the large amounts of alpha interferon in the circulation of people with untreated HIV/AIDS, first noted in 1981, the year this disease first came to our attention[i]. At that time the origin of this endogenous interferon was not known. For a period, elevated levels of beta 2- microglobulin were regarded as an adverse prognostic marker. This molecule can be regarded as a surrogate marker for interferon. The association of interferon with abnormalities characteristic of this disease – including low CD4 numbers was also reported in the first 2-3 years of the epidemic[ii]. Over twenty years later mechanisms have been discovered that can explain the participation of interferon in the disease process[iii].
Interferon appearing in the circulation in untreated HIV disease may even be the first marker of immune activation noted, although not recognized as such when first observed
The changes that occur on activation of the immune system are associated with many other markers that can be measured. Different molecules appear on the surface of activated cells. These can be detected and measured, as can the cytokines associated with immune activation.
These measurements can tell us the extent of immune activation. Importantly, the degree of immune activation parallels the rate of HIV disease progression.
Although it is now accepted that the consequences of continued activation and proliferation of immune system cells contribute to the loss of CD4 cells and the development of disease, the precise way it does so is not yet known, although there are a number of different mechanisms that could account for it. The associated inflammation also has adverse effects beyond the immune system. For more detailed information on these mechanisms there are references to two reviews at the end of this article[iv].
Sustained immune activation is therefore at the heart of HIV/AIDS pathogenesis. It is the sustained nature of the activated state that is critical. Short lived states of immune activation are of course beneficial allowing us to recover from infections. But in progressive HIV disease the process continues at variable rates. Understanding what causes continued immune activation is central to an understanding of the pathogenesis of HIV disease.
What causes Immune activation?
While infection with HIV may start the process, other causes of immune activation are almost certainly also necessary to keep it going.
The following all contribute:
1: The immune response to HIV itself. This includes both innate and adaptive immune responses. As noted above, adaptive responses are the familiar specific antibody and cell mediated responses that provide generally lifelong immunity to specific infectious agents. Innate responses depend on recognition of molecular patterns common to several organisms.
Some suggest that HIV contributes directly to immune activation through binding of some of its proteins to immune system cells.
2: Microbial products that can penetrate into the intestinal wall as a result of damage caused by HIV. These microbial products then activate immune system cells.
3: Other infections.
Some like active herpesvirus infections or the more traditional opportunistic infections can be seen as indirect effects of HIV infection.
Others are infections that can cause disease in people with intact immune systems like the endemic infections in developing nations. Some of these can be more severe in the setting of HIV infection.
Infections that can accelerate HIV replication include those caused by bacteria, viruses, protozoa and helminths.
Those that promote HIV disease progression can usefully be described in three categories.
A: Herpes virus infections. These are probably the most important worldwide. Virtually 100% of adults are infected with some of them. They represent infections that are more often latent, but are readily activated in HIV infected individuals.
B: Endemic infections caused by a variety of different microorganisms than promote HIV disease progression and HIV replication. These are important in developing nations.
C: Other infections. These include the opportunistic infections, as well as those that can affect people with intact immune systems. TB may be the most important. HIV infected individuals are much more susceptible to active TB infections than those who are HIV uninfected. HIV transcriptional activity and viral loads have been noted to be higher in people with active TB.
Here is a little more detail about these three classes of infection:
There are eight members of the herpesvirus family that can infect humans. Herpes simplex virus types 1 and 2 (HSV-1, HSV-2) are perhaps the most familiar. Cytomegalovirus (CMV) and the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infect close to 100% of adults. Varicella-Zoster virus (VZV) causes chicken pox on initial infection and shingles when reactivated. Of the three remaining human herpes viruses HHV-6, HHV-7, and HHV-8, the last is associated with Kaposi’s sarcoma.
With all of the herpes viruses, once infected, individuals carry them for the rest of their lives, usually in a dormant or inactive state. All can be periodically reactivated with or without symptoms.
Humans and herpes viruses have co-existed for evolutionary periods and are well adapted to each other. The immune system generally maintains these viruses in a latent sate so that they cause no harm. Reactivation does occur periodically but is generally limited. Virtually 100% of adults will carry some viruses of the herpesvirus family, usually in a dormant or latent state.
The impaired immunity characteristic of HIV disease however results in reactivation of herpes virus infections. In progressive HIV disease these viruses become active and through a variety of mechanisms, including their contribution to immune activation, promote the replication of HIV. Cytomegalovirus (CMV) may be the most important of the herpesviruses that promote HIV disease progression. It can be part of a positive feedback system in its interactions with HIV.
HIV → latent herpes infections →active herpes infections → HIV
It is not only through their contributions to immune activation that herpes viruses promote HIV replication. In addition to the pro-inflammatory cytokines that have this effect, herpes virus gene products can directly activate HIV if a cell is infected with both viruses. This process, called transactivation works both ways; HIV can also activate herpes viruses.
In addition herpes infections cause a receptor (Fc) to appear on cell surfaces that allows HIV to enter it. In this way cells that do not possess CD4 molecules can become infected with HIV. Active CMV infections can also exert a mildly immunosuppressive effect.
Herpesviruses, particularly CMV are singled out because they probably play a significant role in the pathogenesis of HIV disease. CMV infections are so common that it is hard to find HIV infected individuals who are free from it so that they can be compared to those who are not. But as early as 1991 this was done with HIV infected haemophiliac patients, when it was noted that those also infected with CMV had a much more rapid progression of their HIV disease[v].
That CMV may play a role was suggested by many very early in the epidemic. A multifactorial model for the development of this disease published in 1983 before HIV was discovered suggested a major role for CMV and EBV[vi]. The considerable evidence for a role for herpesviruses, particularly for CMV, did not disappear with the discovery of HIV. The interactions of CMV and other herpes viruses with HIV that have been discovered may now explain their role.
Large studies on the effects of acyclovir on the course of HIV infection have provided compelling evidence that active infection with these viruses can be regarded as part of the disease process for most HIV infected individuals. Investigators focussed on HSV-2 undoubtedly because it is the most common cause of genital ulcers. The dose of acyclovir used would also have suppressed HSV-1, which is even more prevalent than HSV-2 and may be more sensitive to acyclovir. HIV viral loads and the rate of HIV disease progression were reduced in individuals receiving acyclovir compared to those receiving placebo. Although genital ulcer recurrences were suppressed by acyclovir, the drug had no effect on the transmission of HIV.
The effects of acyclovir on HIV probably resulted from suppression of active herpes infection. This is entirely consistent with a model that places HIV and herpesviruses in a positive feedback relationship.
EBV and CMV are much more resistant to acyclovir than HSV-1 and 2. But it cannot be excluded that this drug did not have some effect in also diminishing reactivations of CMV and EBV. If samples from the trial have been stored appropriately, this can be looked at. EBV reactivation patterns are easily recognized, CMV virus isolation is possible and even detection and quantification of activated T lymphocytes would tell us something.
B: Endemic infections:
These are singled out because of their high prevalence in some parts of the developing world.
These infections affect significant proportions of the population, they tend to be chronic and persist in the absence of treatment. The specific infections will depend on geography and many are transmitted by insects. Many of these can also accelerate HIV disease progression, and some also progress more rapidly in the setting of HIV infection[vii].
C: Other infections:
On an individual level, some episodic infections can promote HIV replication. An acute febrile illness may increase HIV viral loads, but this is a transient effect lasting for the duration of the infection.
Most of the serious opportunistic infections occur late in the course of HIV disease, and may promote even further disease progression.
TB deserves special consideration because of its high prevalence in HIV infection. Susceptibility to TB is increased even at higher CD4 levels. Active TB can then promote further HIV replication thus becoming a partner with HIV in a positive feedback interaction[viii].
A role for immune activation in a positive feedback system:
One way to look at the process of disease acquisition in HIV infection assigns a central role to immune activation.
Immune activation not only results from HIV infection, it can also promote further replication of HIV.
HIV replicates more efficiently in activated immune system cells. Secondly, the pro-inflammatory cytokines that are associated with an activated immune system can directly stimulate HIV replication. Progressive HIV disease and immune activation are therefore components of a positive feedback system in this way.
HIV disease → Immune activation → HIV disease → Immune activation
The process starts with HIV infection, and is promoted by other infections , some of which are activated by HIV infection.
Whatever is driving immune activation is driving HIV disease.
The following diagram illustrates this.
Looking at the course of HIV infection in this way has a number of implications.
In the above diagram the course of HIV disease is represented by a self perpetuating cycle proceeding in a clockwise direction. In addition to the elements that have positive effects in driving the process, there will also be those that retard the cycle. This is illustrated in the next diagram which focuses for simplicity on the immunological control of HIV infection and of those infections that add to immune activation. Of course there are other mitigating factors, for example, genetic factors conferring varying degrees of resistance resulting from receptor polymorphism.
In the diagram, the connection of HIV with CMV and other herpes viruses is probably constant and indicated by a red arrow. The connection of HIV with endemic and associated infections is indicated by a blue dotted line, because HIV infection does not increase susceptibility to all of them, nor does it accelerate the progression of all.
The positive feedback cycle starts with HIV infection. At least some of the determinants of the rate of disease progression may be found in the conditions that exist at the time of initial infection that promote or retard the cycle.
There is evidence that the degree of immune activation at the time of seroconversion predicts future disease progression.[ix] [x] It may also be an important determinant of what is called the set point. This is the point following initial infection with HIV, from which CD4 numbers decline.
The degree of immune activation at seroconversion thus influences the starting CD4 level; the rate of subsequent decline is influenced by the degree of immune activation in a system where once started, conditions can exist where immune activation increases with falling CD4 numbers, in a self perpetuating and accelerating fashion. Whatever the outcome, it will be the balance of positive and negative influences.
In the earliest years there were reports of EBV reactivation preceding HIV seroconversion[xi].
I have not seen any follow up of this interesting report. It at least suggests that there might even be situations in which active herpes infections could sometimes promote seroconversion. They certainly produce signals that can activate HIV transcription from proviral DNA.
Treatment and prevention.
The role of immune activation in driving HIV disease is generally accepted now. There are sources of immune activation other than HIV and some of these can be controlled.
Attempts to identify and control additional sources of immune activation may be critical in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Perhaps the most significant benefit in this respect concerns the developing world, where there are so many additional sources of immune activation. Even ascariasis, infestation with the common intestinal round worm is associated with significant immune activation. Worldwide prevalence is estimated to be about one billion, with 173 million in sub-Saharan Africa.
Many highly prevalent endemic infections can promote HIV replication. Controlling these are perfectly appropriate targets in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and of course this would independently improve the lives of millions of individuals.
Measures to control endemic infections include traditional public health interventions, such as the provision of sanitation and clean water and the control of insect vectors. Effective drugs are sometimes inexpensive. Peter Hotez has written an article entitled “Africa’s 32 cent solution to AIDS”.[xii] This refers to the price of Praziquantel , effective in treating schistosomiasis as a single dose.
The lives of impoverished populations are ravaged and shortened by these infections. Many of these infections also interact with HIV to compound the devastation they cause. Poverty, multiple endemic infections and HIV are intimately intertwined and in many instances reciprocally affect each other.
Recent and ongoing studies will probably lead to the routine use of drugs that are effective against herpes virus infections. Trials of valacyclovir to reduce HIV viral loads are in progress. Given the ubiquitous nature of herpes infections, the use of acyclovir as adjunctive therapy might be warranted even in the absence of recurrent herpetic ulcers. Valacyclovir unfortunately is not yet available as a generic medication.
Unfortunately EBV and CMV are much more resistant to these drugs. The development of agents less toxic than valgancyclovir is important. Valgancyclovir has already been shown to reduce immune activation in HIV infected individuals as measured by a reduction in activated CD8 lymphocytes.
In summary it is useful to explicitly recognize the positive feedback interactions between HIV and other infections that can promote its replication, some of which are in turn promoted by HIV. Control of the AIDS epidemic in Africa must include measures to prevent and treat multiple endemic infections that affect hundreds of millions of individuals.
[i] This is of particular interest to me as I was involved in the discovery of large amounts of interferon in the circulation of people with HIV/AIDS in 1981, the year the disease was a first described.
[ii] http://aidsperspective.net/articles/Interferon-AZT-1991.pdf Fig 1 shows CD4 counts in relation to serum interferon . Presented 1986 at the 2nd international aids conference in Paris.
[iv] Immune activation and inflammation in HIV-1 infection: causes and consequences.
V.Appay and D. Sauce
J.Pathol. 2008; 214: 231-241
(This is an important review)
HIV immunopathogenesis and strategies for intervention.
M. Cadogan and A Dalgleish
Lancet Infectious diseases. 2008: 8: 675-84
[vii] Endemic infections in Africa have everything to do with HIV/AIDS: