The formation of multinucleated giant cells with progression to cell death is a characteristic manifestation of the cytopathology induced by the AIDS retrovirus in infected T lymphoid cells. The mechanism of giant cell formation was studied in the CD4 (T4/Leu 3) positive T cell lines JM (Jurkat) and VB and in variants of these lines that are negative for cell surface CD4 antigen. By means of a two-color fluorescent labeling technique, multinucleated giant cells in infected cultures were shown to form through cell fusion. Antibody to CD4 specifically inhibited fusion, and uninfected CD4 negative cells, in contrast to uninfected CD4 positive cells, did not undergo fusion with infected cells, suggesting a direct role for the CD4 antigen in the process of syncytium formation. These results suggest that, in vivo, cell fusion involving the CD4 molecule may represent a mechanism whereby uninfected cells can be incorporated into AIDS virus infected syncytia. Because the giant cells die soon after they are formed, this process may contribute to the depletion of helper/inducer T cells characteristically observed in AIDS.

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