Viruses such as HIV-1 replicate by invading and hijacking cells, forcing the cells to make new copies of the virus. These copies then leave the cell and continue the infection by invading and hijacking new cells. There are two ways that viruses may move between cells, which are known as ‘cell-free’ and ‘cell-to-cell’ infection. In cell-free infection, the virus is released into the fluid that surrounds cells and moves from there into the next cell. In cell-to-cell infection the virus instead moves directly between cells across regions where the two cells make contact.
Previous research has suggested that cell-to-cell infection is important for the spread of HIV-1. However, it is not known how much the virus relies on this process, as it is technically challenging to perform experiments that prevent cell-free infection without also stopping cell-to-cell infection. Researchers have overcome this problem by combining experiments on laboratory-grown cells with a mathematical model that describes how the different infection methods affect the spread of HIV-1. This revealed that the viruses spread using cell-to-cell infection about 60% of the time, which agrees with results previously found by another group of researchers. They also found that cell-to-cell infection increases how quickly viruses can infect new cells and replicate inside them, and improves the fitness of the viruses.
The environment around cells in humans and other animals is different to that found around laboratory-grown cells, and so more research will be needed to check whether this difference affects which method of infection the virus uses. If the virus does spread in a similar way in the body, then blocking the cell-free method of infection would not greatly affect how well HIV-1 is able to infect new cells. It may instead be more effective to develop HIV treatments that prevent cell-to-cell infection by the virus.
Cell-to-cell infection by HIV contributes over half of virus infection. (2015) eLife 4: e08150 doi: 10.7554/eLife.08150
Cell-to-cell viral infection, in which viruses spread through contact of infected cell with surrounding uninfected cells, has been considered as a critical mode of virus infection. However, since it is technically difficult to experimentally discriminate the two modes of viral infection, namely cell-free infection and cell-to-cell infection, the quantitative information that underlies cell-to-cell infection has yet to be elucidated, and its impact on virus spread remains unclear. To address this fundamental question in virology, we quantitatively analyzed the dynamics of cell-to-cell and cell-free human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) infections through experimental-mathematical investigation. Our analyses demonstrated that the cell-to-cell infection mode accounts for approximately 60% of viral infection, and this infection mode shortens the generation time of viruses by 0.9 times and increases the viral fitness by 3.9 times. Our results suggest that even a complete block of the cell-free infection would provide only a limited impact on HIV-1 spread.