OBJECTIVES: To evaluate, over 12 weeks, the antiretroviral activity and safety of abacavir, used alone and in combination with zidovudine (ZDV), as treatment for HIV-1-infected subjects who had limited or no antiretroviral treatment. DESIGN: Seventy-nine HIV-1-infected subjects, with CD4 cell counts 200-500 x 10(6)/l and <12 weeks of previous treatment with ZDV were enrolled in a multicenter study. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of four cohorts receiving abacavir monotherapy for the first 4 weeks (200, 400, or 600 mg every 8 h daily, or 300 mg every 12 h daily) and, thereafter, combination therapy of abacavir with 600 mg ZDV or ZDV placebo, administered in a double-blind manner for an additional 8 weeks. METHODS: Antiretroviral activity was assessed by measuring changes in plasma HIV-1 RNA levels and CD4+ cell counts. Safety was assessed by monitoring clinical adverse events and laboratory abnormalities during the 12-week period and for 4 weeks post-treatment. RESULTS: Treatment with abacavir, alone or in combination with ZDV, produced marked decreases in plasma HIV-1 RNA loads and increases in CD4+ cell counts in all groups. At week 4, median plasma HIV-1 RNA loads decreased by 1.11-1.77 log10 copies/ml and median CD4+ cell counts increased by 63-111 x 10(6)/l in all groups. At week 12, median HIV-1 RNA loads decreased by 1.02-2.24 log10 copies/ml (abacavir monotherapy) and by 1.81-2.01 log10 copies/ml (abacavir-ZDV); median CD4+ cell counts increased by 79-195 x 10(6)/l (abacavir monotherapy) and by 93-142 x 10(6)/l (abacavir-ZDV). At week 12, the percentage of subjects who had plasma HIV-1 RNA levels below 400 and 40 copies/ml were 28 and 11%, respectively (abacavir monotherapy) and 69 and 22%, respectively (abacavir-ZDV). Eight subjects (10%) discontinued the study prematurely because of adverse events; nausea (n = 4) and hypersensitivity (n = 3) were the most common reasons for withdrawal. There were no deaths among the study subjects. CONCLUSIONS: In HIV-infected subjects who have received little or no prior antiretroviral therapy, treatment with abacavir alone or in combination with ZDV is well tolerated and resulted in sustained improvements in key immunologic and virologic efficacy parameters through 12 weeks.