Background: Markers are needed for assessing response to antiretroviral therapy over time. The CD4+ lymphocyte count is one such surrogate, but it is relatively weak.
Objective: To assess the association of changes in plasma human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) RNA level and CD4+ lymphocyte count with progression to the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
Design: Analysis of data from a subset of patients in a multicenter, randomized, clinical trial.
Setting: Six Veterans Affairs medical centers and one U.S. Army medical center.
Patients: 270 symptomatic HIV-infected patients from the Veterans Affairs Cooperative Study on AIDS.
Intervention: Patients were randomly assigned to receive zidovudine or placebo initially; a cross-over protocol was established for patients receiving placebo who had disease progression.
Measurements: Reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction on cryopreserved plasma samples, previously obtained CD4+ lymphocyte counts, and clinical events.
Results: For each decrease of 0.5 log10 copies/mL in plasma HIV RNA level, averaged over the 6 months after randomization, the relative risk (RR) for progression to AIDS was 0.67 (P < 0.001). In a subset of 70 treated patients with long-term follow-up, a return to baseline plasma HIV RNA levels within 6 months of randomization was associated with progression to AIDS (RR, 4.28; P = 0.004). Plasma HIV RNA levels or CD4+ lymphocyte counts over time were more strongly associated with progression to AIDS than were baseline levels or counts.
Conclusions: An adequate virologic response after initiation of antiretroviral therapy seems to require a decrease in plasma HIV RNA level of at least 0.5 log10 copies/mL that is sustained for at least 6 months. The independent relation between plasma HIV RNA level and CD4+ lymphocyte count over time and clinical outcome suggests that the measurement of plasma HIV RNA level, in addition to the CD4+ lymphocyte count, has a role in guiding the management of antiretroviral therapy.