CD8+ T cells play a critical role in controlling HIV viremia and could be important in reducing HIV-infected cells in approaches to eradicate HIV. The simian immunodeficiency virus model provided the proof of concept for a CD8+ T cell-mediated reservoir clearance but showed conflicting evidence on the role of these cells to eliminate HIV-infected cells. In humans, HIV-specific CD8+ T cell responses have not been associated with a reduction of the HIV-infected cell pool in vivo. We studied HIV-specific CD8+ T cells in the RV254 cohort of individuals initiating ART in the earliest stages of acute HIV infection (AHI). We showed that the HIV-specific CD8+ T cells generated as early as AHI stages 1 and 2 before peak viremia are delayed in expanding and acquiring effector functions but are endowed with higher memory potential. In contrast, the fully differentiated HIV-specific CD8+ T cells at peak viremia in AHI stage 3 were more prone to apoptosis but were associated with a steeper viral load decrease after ART initiation. Their capacity to persist in vivo after ART initiation correlated with a lower HIV DNA reservoir. These findings demonstrate that HIV-specific CD8+ T cell magnitude and differentiation are delayed in the earliest stages of infection. These results also demonstrate that potent HIV-specific CD8+ T cells contribute to the reduction of the pool of HIV-producing cells and the HIV reservoir seeding in vivo and provide the rationale to design interventions aiming at inducing these potent responses to cure HIV infection.
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