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BACKGROUND: HTLV-I causes the disabling inflammatory disease HAM/TSP: there is no vaccine, no satisfactory treatment and no means of assessing the risk of disease or prognosis in infected people. Like many immunopathological diseases with a viral etiology the outcome of infection is thought to depend on the virus-host immunology interaction. However the dynamic virus-host interaction is complex and current models of HAM/TSP pathogenesis are conflicting. The CD8+ cell response is thought to be a determinant of both HTLV-I proviral load and disease status but its effects can obscure other factors. RESULTS: We show here that in the absence of CD8+ cells, CD4+ lymphocytes from HAM/TSP patients expressed HTLV-I protein significantly more readily than lymphocytes from asymptomatic carriers of similar proviral load (P = 0.017). A high rate of viral protein expression was significantly associated with a large increase in the prevalence of HAM/TSP (P = 0.031, 89% of cases correctly classified). Additionally, a high rate of Tax expression and a low CD8+ cell efficiency were independently significantly associated with a high proviral load (P = 0.005, P = 0.003 respectively). CONCLUSION: These results disentangle the complex relationship between immune surveillance, proviral load, inflammatory disease and viral protein expression and indicate that increased protein expression may play an important role in HAM/TSP pathogenesis. This has important implications for therapy since it suggests that interventions should aim to reduce Tax expression rather than proviral load per se.

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Adult, Aged, CD4 Lymphocyte Count, Carrier State, Gene Products, tax, HTLV-I Infections, Humans, Middle Aged, Proviruses, RNA, Messenger, T-Lymphocytes, Cytotoxic, Viral Load