The objective of this study was to evaluate the efficacy and tolerability of a combination of three reverse transcriptase inhibitors in patients with human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) infection. The investigation was an open pilot study of 48 weeks duration. Forty-five patients with CD4 cell counts between 50 and 500 cells/mm3 received a combination of oral zidovudine (200 mg three times daily) plus didanosine (200 mg twice daily) and lamivudine (150 mg twice daily). Plasma HIV-1 RNA and CD4 cell levels were measured weekly during the first month, at weeks 6, 8 and monthly thereafter. HIV-1 RNA levels were also measured sequentially in the lymph nodes of five patients after the initiation of therapy, and after several months of undetectable plasma RNA in 10 additional cases. Sequencing was performed on virus from the peripheral blood mononuclear cells of a subset of 14 patients after a mean period of 11+/-1 months on therapy. The mean (+/-SE) plasma viral load was 5.04+/-0.09 log10 copies/ml and the mean CD4 cell count was 339+/-14 cells/mm3 at baseline. Plasma HIV-1 RNA levels decreased exponentially in each case and became undetectable in 36 out of 42 cases who continued therapy for 24 weeks. HIV-1 RNA levels were < 20 copies/ml in 73% of these cases with undetectable HIV RNA. HIV-1 RNA decreased exponentially in lymph nodes after the initiation of therapy. The mean residual lymph node HIV-1 RNA level was 3.06+/-0.58 log10 copies/10(6) cells in 10 patients evaluated after several months of having undetectable plasma HIV RNA levels. A mean gain of 212 and 237 CD4 cells/mm3 was observed at 24 and 48 weeks, respectively. Proviral DNA sequencing showed that the main resistance codon mutations were absent in each case. Only one patient presented with a mutation resulting in the K219Q substitution, and one other with a T200I substitution. We conclude that this combination can achieve a significant decrease in HIV-1 replication in both plasma and lymph nodes in most cases. It is safe, able to delay the selection of resistant mutants, and keeps open the option for the use of protease inhibitors in case of therapeutic failure.