The aim of this study was to investigate peripheral blood polymorphonuclear leukocytes and, whenever possible, aqueous humor from 65 AIDS patients with ophthalmoscopically diagnosed human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) retinitis to determine (i) whether patients consistently carry viral DNA and (ii) to what extent foscarnet induction treatment decreases viral DNA levels. HCMV DNA was quantified by PCR using densitometric analysis of hybridization products obtained from external standards and a standard curve from which the number of genome equivalents of test samples, normalized by using an internal amplification control, was interpolated. Results showed that 56 of 65 patients (86.1%) were positive for HCMV DNA prior to induction treatment. Of 41 of the 56 patients (73.2%) whose blood had become DNA negative after induction, only 5 had a high viral load (> 5,000 genome equivalents per 2 x 10(5) polymorphonuclear leukocytes) prior to induction, whereas as many as 13 of the 15 (26.8%) patients remaining DNA positive after induction had a high viral load prior to induction. Finally, of the nine patients (13.8%) with DNA-negative blood prior to induction treatment, three were shifted to foscarnet from ganciclovir, while six were erroneously enrolled in the study. Pre- and postinduction aqueous humor samples were obtained from 12 patients; all of these were DNA positive prior to induction, whereas after induction, 4 became negative, 6 showed a marked decrease in viral DNA, and 2 had nearly stable low DNA levels. In conclusion, PCR is a valuable tool for etiologic diagnosis and monitoring of HCMV retinitis treatment in AIDS patients. HCMV DNA is consistently present in the blood and aqueous humor of all patients with HCMV retinitis. Foscarnet induction treatment is highly effective in suppressing or reducing DNA levels in both blood leukocytes and aqueous humor.