To study the extent to which phenotypic resistance to stavudine occurs under therapy, we studied 18 pairs of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) isolates from patients both prior to and following 24-48 weeks of treatment with stavudine monotherapy or stavudine in combination with either didanosine or lamivudine. We also used a nested polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay to probe for the presence of specific mutations associated in culture with stavudine resistance. The results showed that resistance to stavudine (approximately 3-10 fold) was observed in nine of ten cases of monotherapy, in three of four cases of therapy involving both stavudine and didanosine, and in two of four cases involving stavudine and lamivudine. Viruses from the four patients receiving stavudine plus didanosine became resistant to didanosine in only one instance while the use of lamivudine plus stavudine yielded resistance to lamivudine each time. Whereas changes in the reverse transcriptase (RT) genes of resistant isolates were frequently observed, two mutations, previously identified with stavudine resistance in tissue culture (i.e., V75T and I50T), could not be identified in the clinical samples by either direct sequencing of the RT gene or by PCR amplification. Thus, resistance to stavudine can occur, albeit at low levels, in the context of prolonged therapy with this drug but is not associated with specific mutations in HIV RT at either codons 75 or 50 in clinical samples.