The ability of CD8+ T cells to effectively limit HIV-1 replication and block HIV-1 acquisition is determined by the capacity to rapidly respond to HIV-1 antigens. Understanding both the functional properties and regulation of an effective CD8+ response would enable better evaluation of T cell-directed vaccine strategies and may inform the design of new therapies. We assessed the antigen specificity, cytokine signature, and mechanisms that regulate antiviral gene expression in CD8+ T cells from a cohort of HIV-1-infected virus controllers (VCs) (<5,000 HIV-1 RNA copies/ml and CD4+ lymphocyte counts of >400 cells/μl) capable of soluble inhibition of HIV-1. Gag p24 and Nef CD8+ T cell-specific soluble virus inhibition was common among the VCs and correlated with substantial increases in the abundance of mRNAs encoding the antiviral cytokines macrophage inflammatory proteins MIP-1α, MIP-1αP (CCL3L1), and MIP-1β; granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF); lymphotactin (XCL1); tumor necrosis factor receptor superfamily member 9 (TNFRSF9); and gamma interferon (IFN-γ). The induction of several of these mRNAs was driven through a coordinated response of both increased transcription and stabilization of mRNA, which together accounted for the observed increase in mRNA abundance. This coordinated response allows rapid and robust induction of mRNA messages that can enhance the CD8+ T cells' ability to inhibit virus upon antigen encounter.
IMPORTANCE: We show that mRNA stability, in addition to transcription, is key in regulating the direct anti-HIV-1 function of antigen-specific memory CD8+ T cells. Regulation at the level of RNA helps enable rapid recall of memory CD8+ T cell effector functions for HIV-1 inhibition. By uncovering and understanding the mechanisms employed by CD8+ T cell subsets with antigen-specific anti-HIV-1 activity, we can identify new strategies for comprehensive identification of other important antiviral genes. This will, in turn, enhance our ability to inhibit virus replication by informing both cure strategies and HIV-1 vaccine designs that aim to reduce transmission and can aid in blocking HIV-1 acquisition.