Highly purified natural killer (NK) cell lines and clones, displaying the typical phenotype, morphology and function and obtained from healthy blood donors, were infected with the BRU isolate of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1). There was no significant increase in reverse transcriptase activity and levels of p24 antigen in the supernatants, but positive staining was observed using an immunogold technique with polyclonal anti-HIV-1 antibodies. When infected NK cells were co-cultivated with autologous non-infected CD4 mitogen-activated cells, significant levels of reverse transcriptase activity and p24 antigen in supernatants were detected. Giant syncytial cells and a high number of mature virion particles were also evident. When NK cell lines or clones from HIV-1-infected patients were studied, neither the presence of p24 antigen nor reverse transcriptase activity was detected in the supernatants after stimulation with mitogens, cytokines or co-culture with allogeneic CD4 mitogen-activated cells. PCR studies did not detect HIV-1 genes in freshly purified NK cells, cell lines or clones from infected patients. Taken together these results suggest that (i) normal NK cells can be infected by the HIV-1 BRU isolate in a non-productive fashion, (ii) PCR with NK cell DNA of HIV-1-infected patients indicates that few of these cells, if any, are infected by HIV-1 and (iii) the mechanisms responsible for the impairment of NK cell function during HIV-1 infection remain to be determined and are probably not related to a direct cytopathic effect of the virus.


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