Subsets of activated CD8+ lymphocytes defined by membrane expression of the activation antigens HLA-DR and CD38 were counted by three-color flow cytometry in homosexual men who subsequently became seropositive for human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV). Profound CD8+ cell activation was seen in all subjects at seroconversion and 6 and 12 months later. The HLA-DR+ CD38+ CD8+ cell population, which has potent direct HIV cytotoxic T cell activity, was markedly elevated at seroconversion in all subjects. In some men, these levels remained elevated throughout the first year of infection. During the next 5 years, these men had stable CD4+ cell levels, whereas the others did not. Long-term survivors (seropositive for 9 years, >800 CD4+ cells/mm3) also had elevated levels of this subset, despite few other activated CD8+ cells. Thus, selective elevation of HLA-DR+ CD38 CD8+ cells was a marker of subsequent stable HIV disease.
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