Purpose: The authors determine the association, if any, between detection of human cytomegalovirus (CMV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) nucleic acids and retinal lesions in patients with acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Methods: Postmortem eyes were examined with a dissecting microscope and light microscopy. Retinal cotton-wool spots (CWS) were removed using a clean touch punch biopsy technique. Equivalent amounts of retinal tissue from the posterior pole of the retina not affected by CWS and from the retinal periphery also were studied. Polymerase chain reaction (PGR) detection of retinal cellular DNA (GA3PD gene), human CMV DNA (major immediate early gene), and HIV (gag gene) was performed using ethidium bromide and liquid hybridization detection. Results: Ninety percent of CWS were positive for CMV DNA versus 22% of peripheral retinal biopsies (P < 0.025). Liquid hybridization showed similar results. Analysis of lesions in which results of both tests were positive (ethidium and liquid hybridization) versus lesions in which results of either test were negative also showed a strong association between CWS and CMV, but not HIV nucleic acids (P < 0.02). Studies of HIV showed no association between retinal CWS lesions and HIV nucleic acid; with liquid hybridization HIV, RNA was detected equally at low levels in all areas. Conclusion: There is a statistically significant association between the presence of human CMV nucleic acids and retinal CWS detected by PCR. There is a low level presence of HIV in the retinal tissue studied that is only detectable using liquid hybridization techniques and is not associated with a particular area or lesions in the retina; this may represent detection of HIV in blood. The presence of CMV in areas of retinal CWS may have implications for their pathogenesis, but further study is necessary because other explanations are possible.
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