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T cells are critical for the control of viral infections and T cell responses are regulated by a dynamic network of non-coding RNAs, including microRNAs (miR) and long non-coding RNAs (lncRNA). Here we show that an activation-induced decline of lncRNA growth arrest-specific transcript 5 (GAS5) activates DNA damage response (DDR), and regulates cellular functions and apoptosis in CD4 T cells derived from people living with HIV (PLHIV) via upregulation of miR-21. Notably, GAS5-miR21-mediated DDR and T cell dysfunction are observed in PLHIV on antiretroviral therapy (ART), who often exhibit immune activation due to low-grade inflammation despite robust virologic control. We found that GAS5 negatively regulates miR-21 expression, which in turn controls critical signaling pathways involved in DNA damage and cellular response. The sustained stimulation of T cells decreased GAS5, increased miR-21 and, as a result, caused dysfunction and apoptosis in CD4 T cells. Importantly, this inflammation-driven T cell over-activation and aberrant apoptosis in ART-controlled PLHIV and healthy subjects (HS) could be reversed by antagonizing the GAS5-miR-21 axis. Also, mutation of the miR-21 binding site on exon 4 of GAS5 gene to generate a GAS5 mutant abolished its ability to regulate miR-21 expression as well as T cell activation and apoptosis markers compared to the wild-type GAS5 transcript. Our data suggest that GAS5 regulates TCR-mediated activation and apoptosis in CD4 T cells during HIV infection through miR-21-mediated signaling. However, GAS5 effects on T cell exhaustion during HIV infection may be mediated by a mechanism beyond the GAS5-miR-21-mediated signaling. These results indicate that targeting the GAS5-miR-21 axis may improve activity and longevity of CD4 T cells in ART-treated PLHIV. This approach may also be useful for targeting other infectious or inflammatory diseases associated with T cell over-activation, exhaustion, and premature immune aging.

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© 2021 Nguyen, Nguyen, Zhao, Schank, Dang, Cao, Khanal, Chand Thakuri, Lu, Zhang, Li, Morrison, Wu, El Gazzar, Ning, Wang, Moorman and Yao. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.