Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cellular, Molecular and Biomedical Sciences

First Advisor

Markus Thali


Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) is a human retrovirus of the lentivirus subgroup which primarily infects T cells and macrophages, and causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Since its emergence in the early 1980s, HIV-1 has caused a global pandemic which is still responsible for over one million deaths per year, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa.

HIV-1 has been the subject of intense study for over three decades, which has resulted not only in major advances in cell biology, but also in numerous drug treatments that effectively control the infection. However, cessation of treatment always results in reemergence of the infection due to the ability of HIV-1 (and other lentiviruses) to establish a persistent quiescent infection known as latency. The elimination of latently-infected cells is the primary goal of current research towards a cure for HIV-1, alongside efforts to develop vaccines, which have thus far been fruitless.

The spread of HIV-1 to susceptible target cells (which express the receptor CD4 and a co-receptor; CXCR4 or CCR5) can take place when antigen-presenting cells, such as dendritic cells, capture virus particles and then pass them on to target cells, without themselves becoming infected. Alternatively, productively infected T cells or macrophages can spread HIV-1 either by shedding virus particles to the milieu, which are then stochastically acquired by target cells, or through transient contacts between infected and uninfected cells known as virological synapses (VSs). VS-mediated cell-to-cell transmission is thought to be highly efficient due to the release of virus directly onto (or very near to) a target cell, and some evidence suggests that the VS is a privileged site which allows the virus to evade neutralizing antibodies and drugs. However, and most importantly, it is of central interest to us because the same transient cell adhesions that facilitate virus transfer can also result in the fusion of the two cells to form a syncytium, due to the presence of the viral fusogen Env and its receptor and co-receptor on either side of the VS. While T cell syncytia can be found in vivo, they remain small, and it appears that the majority of VSs resolve without fusion.

The regulation of HIV-1-induced cell-cell fusion and the fate of those syncytia are the focus of the work presented here. A family of host transmembrane proteins, the tetraspanins, which regulate cell-cell fusion in other contexts (e.g. the fusion of myoblasts to form and maintain myotubes), were found to inhibit HIV-1-induced cell-cell fusion. Our investigations have further characterized this regulation, concluding that tetraspanins allow cells to reach the fusion intermediate known as hemifusion before their ability to repress fusion takes effect. In parallel, because syncytia are nevertheless found both in infected individuals and in a humanized mouse model for HIV-1, we also became interested in whether small T cell-based syncytia were able to participate in HIV-1 spread by transmitting virus to target cells. Using a simple three dimensional in vitro culture system which closely recapitulates those in situ observations, we found that small syncytia can contact target cells and transmit virus without fusing with them. Overall, these studies further our understanding of HIV-1-induced syncytia and reveal a previously unrecognized role for these entities as active participants in HIV-1 spread.



Number of Pages

124 p.

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