Retrovirology 2018 02 1715(1) 22 doi 10.1186/s12977-018-0396-3
The identification of the most appropriate marker to measure reservoir size has been a great challenge for the HIV field. Quantitative viral outgrowth assay (QVOA), the reference standard to quantify the amount of replication-competent virus, has several limitations, as it is laborious, expensive, and unable to robustly reactivate every single integrated provirus. PCR-based assays have been developed as an easier, cheaper and less error-prone alternative to QVOA, but also have limitations. Historically, measuring integrated HIV DNA has provided insights about how reservoirs are formed and maintained. In the 1990s, measuring integrated HIV DNA was instrumental in understanding that a subset of resting CD4 T cells containing integrated HIV DNA were the major source of replication-competent virus. Follow-up studies have further characterized the phenotype of these cells containing integrated HIV DNA, as well as shown the correlation between the integration levels and clinical parameters, such as duration of infection, CD4 count and viral load. Integrated HIV DNA correlates with total HIV measures and with QVOA. The integration assay has several limitations. First, it largely overestimates the reservoir size, as both defective and replication-competent proviruses are detected. Since defective proviruses are the majority in patients on ART, it follows that the number of proviruses capable of reactivating and releasing new virions is significantly smaller than the number of integrated proviruses. Second, in patients on ART clonal expansion could theoretically lead to the preferential amplification of proviruses close to an Alu sequence though longitudinal studies have not captured this effect. Proviral sequencing combined with integration measures is probably the best estimate of reservoir size, but it is expensive, time-consuming and requires considerable bioinformatics expertise. All these reasons limit its use on a large scale. Herein, we review the utility of measuring HIV integration and suggest combining it with sequencing and total HIV measurements can provide insights that underlie reservoir maintenance.