Understanding how some HIV-infected cells resist the cytotoxicity of HIV replication is crucial to enabling HIV cure efforts. HIV killing of CD4 T cells that replicate HIV can involve HIV protease-mediated cleavage of procaspase 8 to generate a fragment (Casp8p41) that directly binds and activates the mitochondrial proapoptotic protein BAK. Here, we demonstrate that Casp8p41 also binds with nanomolar affinity to the antiapoptotic protein Bcl-2, which sequesters Casp8p41 and prevents apoptosis. Further, we show that central memory CD4 T cells (TCM) from HIV-infected individuals have heightened expression of BCL-2 relative to procaspase 8, possibly explaining the persistence of HIV-infected TCM despite generation of Casp8p41. Consistent with this hypothesis, the selective BCL-2 antagonist venetoclax induced minimal killing of uninfected CD4 T cells but markedly increased the death of CD4 T cells and diminished cell-associated HIV DNA when CD4 T cells from antiretroviral therapy (ART)- suppressed HIV patients were induced with αCD3/αCD28 to reactivate HIV ex vivo. Thus, priming CD4 T cells from ART suppressed HIV patients with a BCL-2 antagonist, followed by HIV reactivation, achieves reductions in cell-associated HIV DNA, whereas HIV reactivation alone does not.
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