We assessed the safety profile, tolerability, and antiviral effect of 12 weeks of triple combination therapy with stavudine (d4T), didanosine (ddI), and nelfinavir in patients who had not previously received therapy with d4T, ddI, or a protease inhibitor. We also assessed the effect of the buffered tablet formulation of ddI on the pharmacokinetics of nelfinavir. The study had a single-arm, open-label design and enrolled patients aged > or =18 years who had HIV infection and > or =10,000 plasma HIV RNA copies/mL. Patients received the full recommended doses of oral d4T, ddI, and nelfinavir. Efficacy was assessed in terms of change from baseline in plasma HIV RNA and CD4+ cell counts, as well as in terms of the proportion of patients achieving HIV RNA levels <400 copies/mL. The first 10 patients enrolled in the study were included in a substudy to determine the effects of the buffered tablet formulation of ddI on the pharmacokinetic profile of nelfinavir. A dose of ddI was given 1 hour before nelfinavir, after which the maximum plasma concentration (Cmax), time to Cmax (Tmax), and area under the concentration-time curve (AUC) of nelfinavir were determined. A total of 22 patients entered the trial, of whom 1 (5%) had AIDS, 12 (55%) had symptomatic HIV infection, and 9 (41%) were asymptomatic. The median baseline CD4+ cell count was 315 cells/microL (range, 70-709 cells/microL), and the median plasma viral load was 4.8 log10 copies/mL (range, 4.0-5.6 log10 copies/mL). ddI had no clinically significant effects on the plasma pharmacokinetics of nelfinavir. At the end of 12 weeks of treatment, the mean (+/- SE) decrease in plasma viral load was 1.36+/-0.24 log10 copies/mL, and 8 of 16 patients (50%) achieved plasma HIV RNA levels <400 copies/mL; the mean (+/- SE) increase in CD4+ cell count was 111.4+/-31.7 cells/microL. Patients who were judged to be compliant with antiretroviral therapy (ie, who missed <7 days of all 3 study drugs during 12 weeks of treatment) experienced mean decreases in viral load exceeding 2.0 log10 copies/mL, and 6 of 7 patients achieved HIV RNA levels <400 copies/mL after 12 weeks of therapy. Although 95% of patients reported an adverse event of grade 1 or higher, only 1 patient experienced a grade 3 or 4 adverse event (maculopapular rash) related to nelfinavir. As reflected in the Cmax, Tmax, and AUC, administration of ddI 1 hour before nelfinavir did not influence the pharmacokinetic profile of the protease inhibitor. Triple drug therapy with d4T, ddI, and nelfinavir was well tolerated and associated with few clinically significant toxicities. This treatment resulted in substantial reductions in viral load and improvements in CD4+ cell count over 12 weeks.