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Most current guidelines state that antiretroviral therapy should be considered for HIV-infected patients with plasma HIV RNA > 5000-10 000 copies/ml and CD4 cells > 500 3 106 cells/l. However, there is increasing concern about whether this is the optimal point to begin treatment or whether it is better to delay the initiation to more advanced stages.To study the immunological and virological benefits of starting antiretroviral therapy at these early stages.A total of 161 HIV-infected asymptomatic patients with CD4 cell count > 500 3 106 cells/l and viral load > 10 000 copies/ml were randomly assigned to one of five treatment groups: no treatment, twice daily zidovudine and thrice daily zalcitabine (ZDV-ddC), twice daily zidovudine and didanosine (ZDV-ddI), twice daily stavudine and didanosine (D4T-ddI), or a twice daily three-drug regimen with stavudine and lamivudine and ritonavir. The endpoints were progression to < 350 3 106 cells/l CD4 cells, to < 500 3 106 cells/l with either two Centers for Disease Control class B symptoms or an increase of viral load > 0.5 log10 copies/ml above baseline, or to AIDS or death. In various substudies, the lymphoid tissue and cerebrospinal fluid viral load, development of genotypic resistance, proliferative responses to mitogens and cytomegalovirus, and HIV-1 specific antigens and other immunophenotypic markers were also analysed.Progression rates to study endpoints within 1 year were greater in the control group (31%) than in all groups receiving antiretroviral therapy pooled together (5%; estimated hazard ratio 7.41; 95% confidence interval 5.72-74.55; P < 0.001). The peak mean viral load decrease was greater in the three-drug group when compared with any of the three groups with a two-drug regimen (2.32, 1.65, 1.72 and 1.84, respectively; P ≤ 0.001). At 1 year, viral load remained below 20 copies/ml in 30 out of 33 patients in the three-drug group (91%) and in only eight out of 94 patients (9%) in two-drug groups (P = 0.001). The peak mean increase in CD4 cells was also greater in the three-drug group than in the double treatment arms (259 versus 85, 144 and 145 3 106 cells/l, respectively; P = 0.001). By comparison, 36% of patients in the three-drug group regimen had to change the therapy as a result of adverse events. Substudies were performed in 60 patients recruited at two sites. Tonsillar tissue HIV RNA was measured in seven patients (two in the two-drug groups and five in the three-drug group) in whom plasma HIV RNA was < 20 copies/ml at 1 year. It was 15 151 and 133 333 copies/mg tissue in the two patients from the two-drug group, < 40 copies/mg tissue in four patients in the three-drug group, and 485 copies/mg in one patient in the three-drug group. At 1 year there was a mean increase of 4.21 ± 2.94% in CD8+CD38+ cells in the control group and a decrease of 9.48 ± 3.36% in the two-drug groups (P = 0.01), and 19.87 ± 3.64 in the three-drug group (P = 0.001 and P = 0.05, for comparisons with control group and two-drug groups, respectively). Although proliferative responses to cytomegalovirus antigens were significantly greater in those receiving antiretroviral therapy, response to HIV-1 p24 antigen was not detected in any patient in either treatment group.This study supports the recommendation to start antiretroviral therapy with a three-drug combination during very early stages of HIV-1 disease, at least if viral load is above a cut-off point (10 000 copies/ml in our study). The risk of progression was sevenfold higher in non-treated patients at 8 months of follow-up. Some immune system parameters improved toward normal values after 1 year of antiretroviral therapy, but the proliferative response of CD4 T lymphocytes against the p24 HIV-1 antigen was not recovered. Therapeutic approaches with more potent, better-tolerated and more convenient regimens will increasingly favour early intervention with antiretroviral therapy.