We investigated whether cells belonging to the megakaryocytic lineage could be infected in vitro with human immunodeficiency virus type-1 (HIV-1). Primary GPIIb/IIIa+ bone marrow (BM) cells and HEL continuous cell line were first phenotypically characterized for the presence of megakaryocytic markers and CD4 antigen, then challenged in vitro with the laboratory strain IIIB of HIV-1. Both GPIIb/IIIa+ BM and HEL cells expressed significant levels of CD4 receptor (> 50%) and were efficiently infected with HIV-1, as judged by the presence of proviral DNA after polymerase chain reaction analysis and by quantitative evaluation of gag p24 antigen in the culture supernatants. Of note, infection with HIV-1 in both primary BM megakaryocytes and HEL cells was specifically blocked by soluble recombinant CD4. To ascertain whether the CD4 receptor was essential for infection of megakaryocytic cells, HEL were subcloned into CD4+ and CD4- cells. Although unfractionated and CD4+ HEL cells were productively infected with HIV-1, CD4- HEL cells could not be infected. Infection of HEL cells did not induce gross cytotoxic effects or a significant increase of apoptosis. On the other hand, treatment of unfractionated or CD4+ HEL cells with cross-linked recombinant env gp120 or Leu3a anti-CD4 monoclonal antibody markedly (P < 0.01) increased the degree of apoptosis with respect to HEL cells infected with HIV-1 or treated with cross-linked gag p24 or anti-GPIIb/IIIa antibody. Taken together, these data indicate that the CD4 receptor represents the main route of infection in cells belonging to the megakaryocytic lineage. Moreover, an inappropriate engagement of CD4 by either free env gp120 or anti-CD4 monoclonal antibody could be more relevant than a direct infection with HIV-1 in the induction of the frequent BM megakaryocyte abnormalities found in HIV-1 seropositive thrombocytopenic patients.
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