Efforts to develop immune-based therapies for HIV infection have been impeded by incomplete definition of the immunological correlates of protection. Despite many precedents demonstrating that CD8+ cytotoxic T lymphocytes are key mediators of protective anti-viral immunity in non-human animal models, direct evidence that these effector cells control viral replication in HIV-1 infection has remained elusive. The first part of this paper describes a detailed immunological and genetic study founded on evolutionary considerations. Following infection with HIV-1, virus variants which escaped recognition by autologous cytotoxic T lymphocytes were shown to possess a selection advantage within the host environment. Cytotoxic T lymphocytes therefore exert anti-viral pressure in vivo. This observation provides compelling evidence that cytotoxic T lymphocytes comprise a significant element of anti-retroviral immunity. Subsequently, the quantification of peripheral cytotoxic T lymphocyte frequencies utilizing peptide–(human leucocyte antigen class I) tetrameric complexes is described. Five patients with qualitatively similar immunodominant cytotoxic T lymphocyte responses during symptomatic primary HIV-1 infection were studied longitudinally. Expansions of virus-specific CD8+ lymphocytes comprising up to 2% of the total CD8+ T cell population were observed in the acute phase of infection. Antigenic load was identified as an important determinant of circulating HIV-1-specific CD8+ lymphocyte levels; however, significant numbers of such cells were also found to persist following prolonged therapeutic suppression of plasma viraemia. In addition, an analysis of antigenic sequence variation with time in this case series suggests that the early administration of combination anti-retroviral therapy may limit HIV-1 mutational escape from host cytolytic specificities. The implications of these preliminary data are discussed. The data presented suggest that vaccination protocols should aim to elicit vigorous cytotoxic T lymphocyte responses to HIV-1. Attempts to stimulate polyvalent responses to mutationally intolerant epitopes are likely to be most effective. Optimal management of HIV-1 infection requires an understanding of dynamic host–virus interactions, and may involve strategies designed to enhance cytotoxic T lymphocyte activity following periods of anti-retroviral drug therapy.

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