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N Engl J Med. 1996 Feb 15;334(7):426-31.

Changes in plasma HIV-1 RNA and CD4+ lymphocyte counts and the risk of progression to AIDS. Veterans Affairs Cooperative Study Group on AIDS.

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  • 1Department of Medicine, West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center, CA 90073, USA.



Clinical trials of antiretroviral drugs can take years to complete because the outcomes measured are progression to the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) or death. Trials could be accelerated by the use of end points such as changes in CD4+ lymphocyte counts and plasma levels of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) RNA and beta 2-microglobulin, but there is uncertainty about whether these surrogate measures are valid predictors of disease progression.


We analyzed data from the Veterans Affairs Cooperative Study on AIDS, which compared immediate with deferred zidovudine therapy. Patients' plasma levels of HIV-1 RNA and beta 2-microglobulin were measured in stored plasma.


Among the 129 patients in the immediate-treatment group, 34 had disease that progressed to AIDS, as compared with 57 of the 141 patients in the deferred-treatment group (P = 0.03). Progression to AIDS correlated strongly with base-line CD4+ lymphocyte counts (P = 0.001) and plasma levels of HIV-1 RNA (P < 0.001), but not with base-line levels of beta 2-microglobulin (P = 0.14). A decrease of at least 75 percent in the plasma level of HIV-1 RNA over the first six months of zidovudine therapy accounted for 59 percent of the benefit of treatment, defined as the absence of progression to AIDS (95 percent confidence interval, 13 to 112 percent). Plasma beta 2-microglobulin levels and CD4+ lymphocyte counts explained less of the effect of treatment. A 75 percent decrease in the plasma HIV-1 RNA level plus a 10 percent increase in the CD4+ lymphocyte count could explain 79 percent of the treatment effect (95 percent confidence interval, 27 to 145 percent).


Treatment-induced changes in the plasma HIV-1 RNA level and the CD4+ lymphocyte count, taken together, are valid predictors of the clinical progression of HIV-related disease and can be used to assess the efficacy of zidovudine and possibly other antiretroviral drugs as well.

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