Using fresh whole blood or isolated lymphocytes, the activity of in vivo generated cytotoxic T-lymphocytes (CTL) was measured as the OKT3-specific lysis of HL-60 targets, in a cross-sectional study of 53 HIV (+) patients. CTL activity in the entire HIV(+) group was two to three times higher than in HIV(-) controls, with WHO stage 3 (=pre-AIDS) patients showing the highest cytolytic function. The whole-blood CTL assay was validated and its practical and theoretical advantages are discussed. Within the CD8(+) cells, the number and proportion of the CD45RO(+) "memory" subset were significantly increased in HIV(+) subjects. The HLA-DR(+) subset rose most spectacularly in the asymptomatic stage of the infection, while the CD38(+) subset was the only one still significantly rising between the pre-AIDS and the AIDS stage. CTL activity was most closely correlated with T8 cells expressing the CD38 marker. In the context of CTL, CD38 thus seems to reflect activation rather than immaturity. Lymphocytes from HIV(+) subjects with a high OKT3-specific lytic capacity also destroyed normal lymphoblasts to a significant extent, pointing to their possible involvement in an autodestructive process. Our data thus suggest the importance of T8 cytolytic function and/or T8 subtyping in the immunopathogenesis and the prognosis of HIV infection.