In order to examine the effect of HTLV-I proviral load on the pathogenesis of HAM/TSP, we measured the HTLV-I proviral load in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from a large number of HAM/TSP patients and asymptomatic HTLV-I carriers. To measure the proviral load, we used an accurate and reproducible quantitative PCR method using a dual-labeled fluorogenic probe (ABI PRISM 7700 Sequence Detection System). The mean +/- standard error of mean (s.e.m.) HTLV-I proviral copy number per 1 x 10(4) PBMC was 798 +/- 51 (median 544) in 202 HAM/TSP patients; 120 +/- 17 (median 34) in 200 non HAM-related (general) asymptomatic HTLV-I carriers (RC); and 496 +/- 82 (median 321) in 43 asymptomatic HTLV-I carriers genetically related to HAM/TSP patients (FA). The prevalence of HAM/TSP rises exponentially with log (proviral load) once the proviral load exceeds 1% PBMC. The HTLV-I proviral load of female patients with HAM/TSP was significantly higher than that of male patients, however there was no significant difference in proviral load between sexes in RC. There was a significant correlation between the proviral load and the concentration of neopterin in CSF of HAM/TSP patients. These results indicate that the HTLV-I proviral load in PBMC may be related to the inflammatory process in the spinal cord lesion. The increased proviral load in FA suggests the existence of genetic factors contributing to the replication of HTLV-I in vivo.