The present study aimed to investigate the relationship between acute rejection and human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) infection, as well as the coexpression of HLA-DR and immediate-early (IE) viral antigens, in 143 transbronchial biopsies and bronchoalveolar lavage fluids of 32 lung transplant recipients. We investigated the occurrence of morphologically overt viral infection with conventional histopathology, the expression of IE antigens with single labeling immunohistochemistry, the coexpression of IE antigens and HLA-DR molecules with double labeling techniques, and the presence of viral IE genes with polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Histopathologic study showed overt viral infections (12.6%) in 18 of the 143 biopsies; 8 were in a context of pneumonia and 10 were localizations without surrounding inflammatory cells; immunohistochemistry showed IE viral antigen expression in 31 (21.67%); PCR detected viral IE genes in 73/143 lavage fluids and biopsies (51%). The double labeling immunohistochemical technique showed that most IE antigen-expressing, noncytopathic cells were either HLA- DR negative in areas without infiltrates, or HLA-DR positive in those areas where inflammatory infiltrates were consistent, in the absence of viral cytopathy, with acute rejection. The results indicate that, in transplanted lung, the frequency of morphologically occult HCMV infection as detected by immunohistochemistry and/or PCR) is much higher than that of morphologically overt viral infection. The occurrence of inflammatory infiltrates (consistent with acute rejection) around morphologically occult infected cells and the possible lack of inflammation around both early- and late-infected cells suggest that in biopsies with occult infection the infiltrates should be attributed to allograft reaction. This conclusion would be in keeping with the coexpression of HLA-DR and HCMV IE in infiltrate-rich biopsies that are consistent with acute rejection, as well as with the absence of HLA-DR expression in IE antigen-positive cells in infiltrate-free areas.
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