Stromal cell-derived factor 1 (SDF-1) is the natural ligand that recognizes CXCR4, which also serves as a coreceptor for some strains of HIV-1. In this study, we explored SDF-1 blood levels among HIV-1-infected individuals exhibiting a wide range of CD4+ cell counts. Plasma or serum concentrations of SDF-1 protein were measured by ELISA in samples from 31 HIV-1-seronegative individuals and 79 HIV-1-infected subjects. Although SDF-1 protein levels were stable for months among seronegative individuals (mean intrasubject variation, 17%), the absolute values varied widely (0.28 to 106.5 ng/ml; mean, 25.6 ng/ml). In HIV-1-infected subjects, there was a direct correlation between SDF-1 level and CD4+ cell count. Subjects with fewer than 50 CD4+ cells per cubic microliter of blood had significantly lower mean SDF-1 levels (+/-SD) than did either HIV-1-infected subjects with higher CD4+ cell counts or uninfected controls: CD4+ cell count <50, mean SDF-1 level of 10.7+/-33.7, 50 < CD4+ cell count <200, mean SDF-1 level of 12.9+/-19.0, 200 < CD4+ cell count <500, mean SDF-1 level of 19.3+/-36.8; CD4+ cell count >500, mean SDF-1 level of 18.5+/-25.2; uninfected control mean SDF-1 level, 25.6+/-34.7. No significant change in SDF-1 level was detected after administration of antiretroviral therapy in nine subjects with advanced disease (mean intrasubject variation, 43%). Analysis of SDF-1 mRNA expression in lymph nodes from HIV-1-infected subjects at different disease stages revealed that the medullary cords contained stromal cells that express SDF-1 mRNA. This preliminary analysis suggests a possible link between lower SDF-1 levels and disease progression.