BACKGROUND HIV-1 viremia that is not suppressed by combination antiretroviral therapy (ART) is generally attributed to incomplete medication adherence and/or drug resistance. We evaluated individuals referred by clinicians for nonsuppressible viremia (plasma HIV-1 RNA above 40 copies/mL) despite reported adherence to ART and the absence of drug resistance to the current ART regimen.METHODS Samples were collected from at least 2 time points from 8 donors who had nonsuppressible viremia for more than 6 months. Single templates of HIV-1 RNA obtained from plasma and viral outgrowth of cultured cells and from proviral DNA were amplified by PCR and sequenced for evidence of clones of cells that produced infectious viruses. Clones were confirmed by host-proviral integration site analysis.RESULTS HIV-1 genomic RNA with identical sequences were identified in plasma samples from all 8 donors. The identical viral RNA sequences did not change over time and did not evolve resistance to the ART regimen. In 4 of the donors, viral RNA sequences obtained from plasma matched those sequences from viral outgrowth cultures, indicating that the viruses were replication competent. Integration sites for infectious proviruses from those 4 donors were mapped to the introns of the MATR3, ZNF268, ZNF721/ABCA11P, and ABCA11P genes. The sizes of the clones were estimated to be from 50 million to 350 million cells.CONCLUSION These findings show that clones of HIV-1–infected cells producing virus can cause failure of ART to suppress viremia. The mechanisms involved in clonal expansion and persistence need to be defined to effectively target viremia and the HIV-1 reservoir.FUNDING National Cancer Institute, NIH; Howard Hughes Medical Research Fellows Program, Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Office of AIDS Research; American Cancer Society; National Cancer Institute through a Leidos subcontract; National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH, to the I4C Martin Delaney Collaboratory; University of Rochester Center for AIDS Research and University of Rochester HIV/AIDS Clinical Trials Unit.


Elias K. Halvas, Kevin W. Joseph, Leah D. Brandt, Shuang Guo, Michele D. Sobolewski, Jana L. Jacobs, Camille Tumiotto, John K. Bui, Joshua C. Cyktor, Brandon F. Keele, Gene D. Morse, Michael J. Bale, Wei Shao, Mary F. Kearney, John M. Coffin, Jason W. Rausch, Xiaolin Wu, Stephen H. Hughes, John W. Mellors


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