Diarrhea and malabsorption due to intestinal dysfunction are common symptoms in HIV infection. The pathophysiologic mechanisms of these alterations are often not known, and the role of HIV per se is still controversially discussed. We measured the epithelial transport and barrier function by means of a miniaturized Ussing chamber system in the duodenum of HIV-infected patients in different disease stages, determined by the CD4 cell count in the serum as well as symptoms in patients with and without diarrhea. We could show that diarrhea induced by HIV per se is caused by a leak flux mechanism due to impaired epithelial barrier function. Antisecretory therapy does not seem to be useful in these patients, because we did not find increased active ion secretion. Along the course of the HIV infection, the epithelial transport and barrier function varies with HIV disease stage (expressed by CD4 cell status). In addition, an in vitro model was studied to characterize the effect of HIV-infected human immune cells on the epithelial barrier function using the human colonic epithelial cell line HT-29/B6. HIV infection of human immune cells induced an increase in cytokine release--for example, TNF-alpha, IL-1 beta, IFN-alpha, and IFN-gamma--downregulating the epithelial barrier function of the human colonic epithelial cell line HT-29/B6. Taken together we postulate a specific stage-dependent cytokine pattern released from HIV-infected immune cells in the mucosa, which, corresponding to the HIV disease stage, is responsible for the variation in epithelial function.