Human immunodeficiency virus-1 (HIV-1) has infected more than 60 million people and caused nearly 30 million deaths worldwide, ultimately the consequence of cytolytic infection of CD4+ T cells. In humans and in macaque models, most of these cells contain viral DNA and are rapidly eliminated at the peak of viraemia, yet the mechanism by which HIV-1 induces helper T-cell death has not been defined. Here we show that virus-induced cell killing is triggered by viral integration. Infection by wild-type HIV-1, but not an integrase-deficient mutant, induced the death of activated primary CD4 lymphocytes. Similarly, raltegravir, a pharmacologic integrase inhibitor, abolished HIV-1-induced cell killing both in cell culture and in CD4+ T cells from acutely infected subjects. The mechanism of killing during viral integration involved the activation of DNA-dependent protein kinase (DNA-PK), a central integrator of the DNA damage response, which caused phosphorylation of p53 and histone H2AX. Pharmacological inhibition of DNA-PK abolished cell death during HIV-1 infection in vitro, suggesting that processes which reduce DNA-PK activation in CD4 cells could facilitate the formation of latently infected cells that give rise to reservoirs in vivo. We propose that activation of DNA-PK during viral integration has a central role in CD4+ T-cell depletion, raising the possibility that integrase inhibitors and interventions directed towards DNA-PK may improve T-cell survival and immune function in infected individuals.
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