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Purified helper-inducer (T4+) and suppressor-cytotoxic (T8+) lymphocytes from eight patients with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and eight healthy heterosexual donors were examined by limiting dilution analysis for their ability to be clonally expanded. It was demonstrated that viable T4+ and T8+ lymphocytes from patients with AIDS had markedly reduced proportions of clonable cells compared to the healthy donors (T4 = 1:255 vs. 1:34, P = 0.06; T8 = 1:355 vs. 1:55, P = 0.01). However, the cloned T cells that were obtained from the patients with AIDS demonstrated normal proliferation in response to phytohemagglutinin and alloantigen, and normal ability to help or suppress pokeweed mitogen-driven IgG synthesis. These results strongly suggest that, in addition to a quantitative diminution of T4+ lymphocytes in AIDS, there is an intrinsic functional defect in the surviving T4+ and T8+ lymphocytes, which is reflected by a severe decrease in their potential for clonal expansion.