Mother-to-child transmission can occur in utero, mainly intrapartum and postpartum in case of breast-feeding. In utero transmission is highly restricted and results in selection of viral variant from the mother to the child. We have developed an in vitro system that mimics the interaction between viruses, infected cells present in maternal blood, and the trophoblast, the first barrier protecting the fetus. Trophoblastic BeWo cells were grown as a tight polarized monolayer in a two-chamber system. Cell-free virions applied to the apical pole neither crossed the barrier nor productively infected BeWo cells. In contrast, apical contact with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-infected peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) resulted in transcytosis of infectious virus across the trophoblastic monolayer and in productive infection correlating with the fusion of HIV-infected PBMCs with trophoblasts. We showed that viral variants are selected during these two steps and that in one case of in utero transmission, the predominant maternal viral variant characterized after transcytosis was phylogenetically indistinguishable from the predominant child's virus. Hence, the first steps of transmission of HIV-1 in utero appear to involve the interaction between HIV type 1-infected cells and the trophoblastic layer, resulting in the passage of infectious HIV by transcytosis and by fusion/infection, both leading to a selection of virus quasispecies.
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