The development of an increasing number of antiretroviral agents has dramatically reduced HIV-associated morbidity and mortality. However, most of these drugs have been approved through clinical trials where only surrogate markers for clinical endpoints have been used. Ideally, a surrogate marker should be biologically plausible, predictive of disease progression and measurable by standardized assays. Historically, a number of candidate markers have been explored for monitoring the course of HIV infection and response to treatment. While the level of plasma HIV RNA and the absolute numbers of peripheral CD4+ T cells have eventually become the reference markers in clinical practice, several additional parameters are still being evaluated to improve our knowledge of the virus-host interaction, discriminate between apparently equivalent stages and further refine antiretroviral treatment. Advances in molecular methods and growing elucidation of HIV dynamics in vivo have made it possible to consider several molecular virologic parameters as candidate markers for treatment response, including intracellular levels of different HIV RNA species and amount of integrated and unintegrated HIV DNA. Much effort has been recently devoted to the definition of immunological parameters as prognostic markers. The abnormal activation induced by HIV on the immune system represents a major pathogenetic feature of HIV infection. Immune activation may be evaluated by the analysis of activation markers expressed on the cell membrane and by the quantification of soluble plasma molecules released by activated cells. Such markers of immune activation have an important prognostic significance in terms of disease progression and might be suitable for the monitoring and prognosis of antiretroviral therapies. In the late years, the possibility of extending potent antiretroviral therapies to developing countries has raised the need of simple, reliable and cost-effective tests to measure prognostic markers for disease evolution and assessment of therapy efficacy. This review summarizes the benefits and limits of reference and candidate surrogate markers and their integration for optimal antiretroviral therapy.
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