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To alter the natural course of HIV-1 infection by inducing or potentiating immune responses to HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein.Multicentre, double-blind, three-arm, placebo-controlled study.Outpatients attending clinics in two University Hospitals.Ninety-nine asymptomatic HIV-1-infected adults with CD4+ T-cell counts > 400 and < 600 × 106/l and no previous antiretroviral therapy were included.Patients were randomly assigned to three groups treated with: (i) gp160 in alum over a 2-year period in combination with placebo for the full study duration (n = 32); (ii) gp160 in alum over a 2-year period in combination with zidovudine for the full study duration (n = 34); and (iii) alum over a 2-year period in combination with zidovudine for the full study duration (n = 33).Immunotherapy was well tolerated and no significant differences in disease progression were seen in the treatment groups. The majority of patients (85%) receiving gp160 showed persistent lymphoproliferative responses to the immunogen and to a different Env antigen preparation. CD4+ cell count changes in patients receiving zidovudine alone were significantly higher than those seen in patients receiving immunotherapy alone after 1 year of treatment. Zidovudine administration was associated with initial transient reduction of plasma viraemia.Prolonged immunization with a soluble HIV-1 subunit provided no benefit to asymptomatic HIV-1-infected patients and was inferior to zidovudine monotherapy. Furthermore, immunization with gp160 shortened the duration of the transient viral load reduction induced by zidovudine.