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Seminal viral load is likely to be directly related to the sexual transmissibility of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1). However, it is not clear whether the level of HIV-1 in semen varies with the stage of infection and whether antiretroviral therapy reduces seminal viral load. A nucleic acid sequence-based amplification (NASBA) technique was used to quantify HIV-1 RNA as an indicator of infectious viral load in semen and blood plasma of homosexual men with different stages and durations of HIV-1 infection. The median viral load in a cross section of 34 men was 11,000 HIV-1 RNA copies/ml (range, <400 to 1.3 x 10(7) copies/ml) in whole semen and 5,238 HIV-1 RNA copies/ml (range, <400 to 2.8 x 10(5) copies/ml) in seminal plasma, which is 10- to 1,000-fold higher than previous estimates. Viral loads in whole semen and seminal plasma were strongly correlated with blood plasma viral load (P < 0.001) but not with blood CD4+ T-cell count (P = 0.420). Longitudinal analysis of eight subjects who progressed to AIDS showed that seminal viral load increased in most cases, with viral load consistently higher in blood plasma than in semen. Viral loads in semen and blood plasma decreased markedly in six other patients following initiation of potent combination therapy with a protease inhibitor (indinavir) and a nonnucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor (DMP-266). These findings have important implications for the biology of sexual transmission of HIV-1 and its potential reduction by antiretroviral therapy.