OBJECTIVE: Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-positive lymphomas in HIV carriers are paralleled by elevated EBV-DNA loads in the circulation. Approximately 20% of asymptomatic HIV carriers also show elevated circulating EBV-DNA loads. We aimed to characterize the nature of this EBV DNA and to determine the transcriptional phenotype of EBV in blood, in relation to serological parameters.
DESIGN: A total of 197 random asymptomatic HIV carriers, representing 2% of the Dutch HIV-positive population, were sampled for blood, peripheral blood mononuclear cells and plasma. In addition, 39 EBV-DNA carriers were sampled twice, with a 5-year interval.
METHODS: EBV-DNA loads were determined by LightCycler-based real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR). EBV transcription was studied by nucleic acid sequence-based amplification and reverse transcriptase PCR. IgA and IgG antibodies to EBV antigens EBNA1 and VCA-p18 were quantified by synthetic peptide-based enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay.
RESULTS: : Elevated EBV-DNA loads were found in whole blood of 19.3% of the tested HIV population, which were persistent in 82%. Plasma samples were EBV-DNA negative and circulating EBV DNA could be attributed to the B-cell compartment. Transcription of only LMP2 and (non-translated) transcripts from the BamHI-A region of the EBV genome was found, whereas EBNA1, LMP1 and lytic EBV transcripts were absent despite high cellular EBV-DNA loads. IgA-reactivity to VCA-p18 was seen in 69%. IgG to VCA-p18 was significantly higher in high EBV-DNA load carriers.
CONCLUSION: Asymptomatic HIV carriers show aberrant EBV persistence in the circulation, characterized by elevated, B-cell-associated EBV-DNA loads. EBV transcription is restricted, arguing for EBV gene shutdown in circulating EBV-carrying B cells. Increased IgA and IgG reactive to VCA-p18 is indicative of increased lytic EBV replication, possibly occurring at mucosal lymphoid sites but not in the circulation.