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The Relationship Between CD4 and HIV


Updated January 21, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Definition: CD4 is a protein that is sometimes expressed on the surface of a class of immune system cells known as T-cells. T-cells are specialized cells that recognize when other cells have been infected by viruses or other pathogens. In order to determine if a cell is infected, the CD4 positive T-cell looks to see if pathogen protein fragments are displayed on the cell's surfaces.

There are two subclasses of T-cells: CD4 cells and CD8 cells. CD8 cells are known as cytotoxic (cell toxic) T-cells because they kill infected cells directly. In contrast, CD4 cells activate other cells to fight an infection. CD4 T-cells are responsible for initiating the antibody response, and they can also tell cells known as macrophages to destroy any bacteria they are carrying.

CD4 is often referred to as a co-receptor because it works together with other receptors during the course of the immune response. It is probably one of the most well-known receptors in the body because of the CD4-HIV connection.


Examples: The CD4-HIV relationship is an important one in the progression of HIV infection. HIV needs to bind to CD4 and one of its co-receptors -- either CCR5 or CXCR4 -- to gain entry into white blood cells.

Over time, HIV infection leads to a decline in the number of CD4 cells. Because of the importance of these cells to the immune response, a loss of CD4 cells causes people to become more susceptible to infection. That is why CD4 count is one of the criteria used to determine if a person has progressed to AIDS.

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