In low and middle income countries, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) exposed, uninfected (HEU) infants demonstrate higher morbidity and mortality than their unexposed counterparts. To determine possible immune correlates of this effect, we investigated the impact of in utero HIV exposure on the uninfected neonatal immune milieu and maternal factors mediating these abnormalities in a cohort of vaginally delivered mother-infants. Samples of delivery and cord blood plasma were selected from 22 Kenyan HIV-infected women and their HIV exposed uninfected (HEU) infants drawn from the pre-ARV era, while 19 Kenyan HIV-uninfected (HU) women and their infants were selected from a control cohort.
Compared to HU cord plasma, HEU cord plasma contained significantly higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines interleukins (IL)-6 and -8 (both p < 0.001) and significantly lower levels of CXC motif chemokine 11 (CXC11) (p < 0.001). Mediation analysis demonstrated that maternal HIV infection status was a significant determinant of infant IL-8 responses: HEU status was associated with a ninefold higher infant:mother (cord:delivery) plasma levels of IL-8 (p < 0.005), whereas maternal viral load was negatively associated with HEU IL-8 levels (p = 0.04) and not associated with HEU IL-6 levels.
Exposure to maternal HIV infection drives an increase in prenatal IL-8 that is partially mediated by maternal cytokine levels. Differences between maternal and infant cytokine levels strongly suggest independent modulation in utero, consistent with prenatal immune activation. Elevated pro-inflammatory signals at birth may interfere with T cell responses at birth and subsequently influence immune maturation and the risk of morbidity and mortality in HEU infants.