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CD81 is a member of the tetraspan superfamily and plays a role in immune responses and in hepatitis C virus (HCV) pathogenesis. We analysed CD81 cell surface and mRNA expression in different lymphocytic subpopulations in human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-1, HCV and dually infected subjects. CD81 cell surface expression was evaluated with fluorescence activated cell sorter (FACS) analysis; mRNA quantification was performed with semiquantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR). CD81 cell surface expression on CD4+ T lymphocytes was significantly different by analysis of variance (ANOVA) test (P < 0·001), with reduced expression in HIV-1+ patients. In B lymphocytes, higher cell surface expression was present in HIV-1, in HCV and in dually infected subjects compared to healthy controls. CD81 expression on B lymphocytes showed a positive correlation with plasma HIV-RNA. CD81 mRNA levels in B lymphocytes were significantly higher in HIV-1+ patients compared to healthy controls. The potential consequence of the down-regulation of CD81 in CD4+ cells during HIV-1 infection in conjunction with diverted CD28, CD4 and CD3 expression is the disruption of T cell function. Increased CD81 expression on B lymphocytes might explain the higher prevalence of lymphoproliferative disorders in HIV-1 and HCV infection. Up-regulation of CD81 mRNA on CD4+ T cells indicates that down-regulation of CD81 occurs at the post-transcriptional/translational level.