HIV-1-specific cytotoxic T cell (CTL) activity has been suggested to correlate with protection from progression to AIDS. We have examined the relationship between HIV-specific CTL activity and maintenance of peripheral blood CD4+ T lymphocyte counts and control of viral load in 17 long-term survivors (LTSs) of HIV-1 infection. Longitudinal analysis indicated that the LTS cohort demonstrated a decreased rate of CD4+ T cell loss (18 cells/mm3/year) compared with typical normal progressors (approximately 60 cells/mm3/year). The majority of the LTSs had detectable, variable, and in some individuals, quite high (>10(4) RNA copies/ml) plasma viral load during the study period. In a cross-sectional analysis, HIV-specific CTL activity to HIV Gag, Pol, and Env proteins was detectable in all 17 LTSs. Simultaneous analysis of HIV-1 Gag-Pol, and Env-specific CTLs and virus load in protease inhibitor-naive individuals showed a significant inverse correlation between Pol-specific CTL activity and plasma HIV-1 RNA levels (p = 0.001). Furthermore, using a mixed linear effects model the combined effects of HIV-1 Pol- and Env-specific CTL activity on the viral load were significantly stronger than the effects of HIV-1 Pol-specific CTL activity alone on predicted virus load. These data suggest that the presence of HIV-1-specific CTL activity in HIV-1-infected long-term survivors is an important component in the effective control of HIV-1 replication.