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Background Highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) decreases viral load and increases CD4 T-cell counts in patients with advanced HIV-1 infection. Whether HAART can improve CD4 T-cell function, and the biological characteristics affecting immune reconstitution, remain unclear. We undertook an open prospective pilot study to address these issues. Both treatment-naive and previously treated patients were included.Methods 20 patients (seven naive, 13 previously treated) were treated with one protease inhibitor and two reverse-transcriptase inhibitors and followed up for 12 months. We measured CD4-cell proliferation in response to cytomegalovirus and tuberculin antigens and counted subsets of CD4 cells at baseline and months 1, 3, 6, 9, and 12. Patients who had no antigen-specific reactivity at baseline but developed it while receiving HAART were classified as immunological responders.Findings Four patients had antigen-specific reactivity at baseline compared with 14 at month 12 (p <0.001). Between month 3 and month 12 viral load fell by a median of 1.5 log copies/mL from baseline (4.6 log copies/mL) and CD4-cell count increased by a median of 63/microL (from 93/microL). Ten patients (six of seven naive, four of 13 previously treated) were immunological responders. They differed significantly from the ten non-responders in that their viral-load reduction was sustained for 12 months, the increase in CD4 count was greater, and they showed an early increase in memory CD4 T cells with an increase of naive T cells.Interpretation HAART can induce sustained recovery of CD4 T-cell reactivity against opportunistic pathogens in severely immunosuppressed patients. This recovery depends not on baseline values but on the amplitude and duration of viral-load reduction and the increase of memory CD4 T cells.