Sustained, drug-free control of HIV-1 replication is naturally achieved in less than 0.5% of infected individuals (here termed ‘elite controllers’), despite the presence of a replication-competent viral reservoir1. Inducing such an ability to spontaneously maintain undetectable plasma viraemia is a major objective of HIV-1 cure research, but the characteristics of proviral reservoirs in elite controllers remain to be determined. Here, using next-generation sequencing of near-full-length single HIV-1 genomes and corresponding chromosomal integration sites, we show that the proviral reservoirs of elite controllers frequently consist of oligoclonal to near-monoclonal clusters of intact proviral sequences. In contrast to individuals treated with long-term antiretroviral therapy, intact proviral sequences from elite controllers were integrated at highly distinct sites in the human genome and were preferentially located in centromeric satellite DNA or in Krüppel-associated box domain-containing zinc finger genes on chromosome 19, both of which are associated with heterochromatin features. Moreover, the integration sites of intact proviral sequences from elite controllers showed an increased distance to transcriptional start sites and accessible chromatin of the host genome and were enriched in repressive chromatin marks. These data suggest that a distinct configuration of the proviral reservoir represents a structural correlate of natural viral control, and that the quality, rather than the quantity, of viral reservoirs can be an important distinguishing feature for a functional cure of HIV-1 infection. Moreover, in one elite controller, we were unable to detect intact proviral sequences despite analysing more than 1.5 billion peripheral blood mononuclear cells, which raises the possibility that a sterilizing cure of HIV-1 infection, which has previously been observed only following allogeneic haematopoietic stem cell transplantation2,3, may be feasible in rare instances.
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