13 patients with human immunodeficiency virus type 1 infection class II-IV, but without opportunistic infection or neoplasm, received 6 micrograms (3.6 x 10(4) IU) of polyethylene glycol recombinant human interleukin 2 (PEG IL-2) intradermally twice a week for 4 mo were then followed for an additional 6 mo. Clinical, immunological, and viral parameters were monitored in the patients, all of whom were taking zidovudine. The cutaneous administration of PEG IL-2 resulted in an indurated zone resembling a delayed-type hypersensitivity response of 26 +/- 1 mm diameter (676 mm2) at 72-96 h after injection throughout the 4 mo of administration. This dose, which was appreciably lower than in most previous trials, was not associated with local or systemic toxicity. No increase in the viral burden of circulating leukocytes or plasma occurred. A number of immunological functions were stimulated by this course of therapy. All patients demonstrated high levels of lymphokine-activated killer cell activity by cells freshly removed from the circulation and in the absence of in vitro exposure to IL-2. Natural killer cell activity was also enhanced. Limiting dilution analysis revealed an increase in the frequency of IL-2-responsive cells from abnormally low to levels above normal during the course of injections. In a subgroup of four patients with > or = 400 CD4+ T cells/microliter at entry, there was a trend to sustained increases in CD4+ T cell numbers. However, this increase did not reach statistical significance. This subset of patients also exhibited higher proliferative responses to phytohemagglutinin as mitogen. Several of these effects persisted for 3-6 mo after cessation of therapy. In conclusion, low-dose IL-2 regimens lead to sustained immune enhancement in the absence of toxicity. We suggest pursuit of this approach for further clinical trials both as prophylaxis and therapy.