CD4+ T helper cells are white blood cells that are an essential part of the human immune system. They are often referred to as CD4 cells, T-helper cells or T4 cells. They are called helper cells because one of their main roles is to send signals to other types of immune cells, including CD8 killer cells. CD4 cells send the signal and CD8 cells destroy and kill the infection or virus. If CD4 cells become depleted, for example in untreated HIV infection, or following immune suppression prior to a transplant, the body is left vulnerable to a wide range of infections that it would otherwise have been able to fight.
D2 and D4 resemble immunoglobulin constant (IgC) domains.
CD4 uses its D1 domain to interact with the β2-domain of MHC class II molecules. T cells expressing CD4 molecules (and not CD8) on their surface, therefore, are specific for antigens presented by MHC II and not by MHC class I (they are MHC class II-restricted).
HIV-1 uses CD4 to gain entry into host T-cells and achieves this by binding to the viral envelope protein known as gp120. The binding to CD4 creates a shift in the conformation of gp120 allowing HIV-1 to bind to a co-receptor expressed on the host cell. These co-receptors are chemokine receptorsCCR5 or CXCR4. Following a structural change in another viral protein (gp41), HIV inserts a fusion peptide into the host cell that allows the outer membrane of the virus to fuse with the cell membrane.
HIV infection leads to a progressive reduction in the number of T cells expressing CD4. Medical professionals refer to the CD4 count to decide when to begin treatment during HIV infection. Normal blood values are usually expressed as the number of cells per microliter (or cubic millimeter, mm3) of blood, with normal values for CD4 cells being 500-1200 cells/mm3. A CD4 count measures the number of T cells expressing CD4. While CD4 counts are not a direct HIV test--e.g. they do not check the presence of viral DNA, or specific antibodies against HIV--they are used to assess the immune system of a patient. Patients often undergo treatments when the CD4 counts reach a level of 350 cells per microliter; less than 200 cells per microliter in an HIV-positive individual is diagnosed as AIDS. Medical professionals also refer to CD4 tests to determine efficacy of treatment.
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