Effect of L-Carnitine on Human Immunodeficiency Virus-1 Infection-Associated Apoptosis: A Pilot Study

Sonia Moretti, Edoardo Alesse, Luisa Di Marzio, Francesca Zazzeroni, Barbara Ruggeri, Sonia Marcellini, Giuseppe Famularo, Seth M. Steinberg, Antonio Boschini, M. Grazia Cifone and Claudio De Simone


The Fas/Fas ligand system is involved in uncontrolled apoptosis, which ultimately leads to the loss of T lymphocytes in human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-infected individuals. The signal transduced by Fas receptor involves the activation of an acidic sphingomyelinase, sphingomyelin breakdown, and ceramide production. Our recent reports have shown that L-carnitine inhibits Fas-induced apoptosis and ceramide production both in vitro and in vivo. The aim of this study was to study, in a preliminary fashion, the impact of long-term L-carnitine administration on CD4 and CD8 absolute counts, rate, and apoptosis in HIV-1–infected subjects. The generation of cell-associated ceramide and HIV-1 viremia was also investigated. Eleven, asymptomatic, HIV-1–infected subjects, who refused any antiretroviral treatment despite experiencing a progressive decline of CD4 counts, were treated with daily infusions of L-carnitine (6 g) for 4 months. Immunologic and virologic measures and safety were monitored at the start of the treatment and then on days 15, 30, 90, and 150. L-carnitine therapy resulted in an increase of absolute CD4 counts, which was statistically significant on day 90 and 150 (P = .010 and P = .019, respectively). A positive, not significant trend was also observed even in the change in absolute counts of CD8 lymphocytes. L-carnitine therapy also led to a drop in the frequency of apoptotic CD4 and CD8 lymphocytes. This reduction occurred gradually, but changes in actual values between each time point and baseline were strongly significant (P = .001 at the end of the study compared with the baseline). A strong reduction (P = .001) in cell-associated ceramide levels was found at the end of the study. In general, HIV-1 viremia increased slightly. No toxicity related to L-carnitine therapy was observed and dose reductions were not necessary. In HIV-1–infected subjects, long-term infusions of L-carnitine produced substantial increases in the rate and absolute counts of CD4 and, to a lesser degree, of CD8 lymphocytes. This was paralleled by a reduced frequency of apoptotic cells of both subgroups and a decline in the levels of ceramide. No clinically relevant change of HIV-1 viremia was observed.

  • Submitted June 11, 1997.
  • Accepted December 21, 1997.
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