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In an attempt to determine the mechanisms underlying the CD4 T cell expansions in patients receiving intermittent interleukin (IL)-2, a cohort of 10 HIV infected patients were studied during a 5-day cycle of IL-2 to measure rates of apoptosis, the expression of activation markers in CD4 and CD8 T cell subsets and the serum levels of proinflammatory cytokines. All patients were receiving highly active antiretroviral therapy.Peripheral blood mononuclear cells were tested pre- and at the completion of IL-2 treatment with annexin V/7-AAD for the measurement of apoptosis. Phenotypic analyses of T lymphocytes were performed in parallel. Serum levels of interferon (IFN)γ, granulocyte–macrophage colony stimulating factor, IL-6 and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)α were tested by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay.IL-2 increased the spontaneous apoptosis rates of CD4 and CD8 T lymphocytes (P = 0.003). Expression of HLA-DR, CD38 and CD95 increased on both CD4 and CD8 T lymphocytes whereas CD25 induction was observed exclusively on CD4 T cells. Significant increases of serum IL-6 and TNFα levels were noted in all patients whereas viral loads remained unchanged.Administration of IL-2 for 5 days in HIV infected patients leads to enhanced apoptosis of both CD4 and CD8 T cells despite an eventual increase of the CD4 T cell count. A profound activation state with induction of activation markers on T cells and high levels of TNFα and IL-6 accompanies the increased apoptosis during the IL-2 cycle. These data suggest that the CD4 expansions seen in the context of intermittent IL-2 therapy are the net result of increases in both cell proliferation and cell death.