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Methods for the absolute quantitation of nucleic acids present in small amounts in biological samples (competitive PCR and competitive reverse transcription PCR) were applied to the direct monitoring of specific anti-human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) therapy. With these techniques, different parameters of HIV-1 activity (including genomic RNA copy numbers in plasma, proviral and late transcript copy numbers in peripheral blood lymphocytes, and mean transcriptional activity per each HIV-1 provirus) were monitored during therapy with azidothymidine or ddI. In most of these treated patients, a direct response to the antiretroviral compounds employed was detected during the first few weeks of treatment, as documented by a fast decrease of all molecular indexes of HIV-1 activity. However, residual viral replication (albeit at minimal levels) was documented during therapy in all subjects monitored in this study. In a minority of the patients under study (3 of 12), the drug-dependent viral inhibition was maintained throughout the observation time (213 to 791 days), but in 9 patients a rebound in viremia level was detected during therapy with competitive reverse transcription PCR. Sequencing analysis of a portion of the HIV-1 gene pol from cell-free virions showed that circulating viral variants bearing at least two mutations compatible with azidothymidine or ddI resistance were detectable in the patients who exhibited a rebound in cell-free HIV-1 genomic RNA copy numbers in plasma but not in one patient who maintained (for 455 days) lowered levels of viral load during ddI treatment.