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Infection of adherent primary monocytes with HIV-1Ba-L is significantly suppressed in the presence of human saliva. By reverse transcriptase (RT) levels, saliva, although present for only 1 h during monocyte viral exposure, inhibited HIV-1 infectivity for 3 wk after infection, whereas human plasma and synovial fluid failed to inhibit HIV-1 infectivity. Antiviral activity was identified in the saliva soluble fraction, and to determine the factor(s) responsible, individual saliva proteins were examined. Of those proteins examined, only secretory leukocyte protease inhibitor (SLPI) was found to possess anti-HIV-1 activity at physiological concentrations. SLPI anti-HIV-1 activity was dose dependent, with maximal inhibition at 1-10 micrograms/ml (> 90% inhibition of RT activity). SLPI also partially inhibited HIV-1IIIB infection in proliferating human T cells. SLPI appears to target a host cell-associated molecule, since no interaction with viral proteins could be demonstrated. However, SLPI anti-HIV-1 activity was not due to direct interaction with or downregulation of the CD4 antigen. Partial depletion of SLPI in whole saliva resulted in decreased anti-HIV-1 activity of saliva. These data indicate that SLPI has antiretroviral activity and may contribute to the important antiviral activity of saliva associated with the infrequent oral transmission of HIV-1.