Highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART) is associated with reduction in the morbidity and mortality of patients with advanced HIV-1 disease. The ability of such treatment to improve immune responses against HIV-1 and opportunistic pathogens is variable and limited. Addition of cytokine immunotherapy to this treatment may improve immune responses. IL-2 with or without granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) was administered to HIV-1+ individuals receiving HAART with undetectable viral loads, and CD4 counts <100 cells/microl. In one patient presenting with Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) infection, we evaluated the effect of cytokine immunotherapy on lymphocyte phenotype; plasma viral load; proliferative responses to mitogens, recall and HIV-1 antigens; cytokine production and message in response to non-specific and specific stimuli; and natural killer (NK) cell activity. Proliferation assays were performed in two similar patients. Before cytokine immunotherapy the predominant CD8+ population was mainly CD28-. No proliferation or IL-2 production was seen in response to mitogens, recall or HIV-1 antigens; and no HIV-1 peptide-specific interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma)-secreting cells were present. Low levels of IL-4 were detected in response to antigens to which patients had been exposed, associated with up-regulated expression of costimulatory molecules influenced by IL-4. Following IL-2 administration, loss of IL-4 was associated with increased NK cell activity and HIV-1 peptide-specific and non-specific IFN-gamma-producing cells. Proliferative responses associated with IL-2 production and responsiveness were only seen after subsequent concomitant administration of GM-CSF with IL-2. These changes mirrored clinical improvement. An imbalance of lymphocyte subsets may account for immune unresponsiveness when receiving HAART. Restoration of responses following immunotherapy suggests a shift towards a lymphocyte profile with anti-pathogen activity.