A large proportion of the CD8(+) T cell pool in persons chronically infected with HIV consists of cells that show features of replicative senescence, an end stage characterized by irreversible cell cycle arrest, multiple genetic and functional changes, and shortened telomeres. The objective of our research was to determine whether constitutive expression of the gene for the human telomerase (hTERT) can prevent senescence-induced impairments in human virus-specific CD8(+) T cells, particularly in the context of HIV-1 disease. Our results indicate that hTERT-expressing HIV-specific CD8(+) lymphocytes show both an enhanced and sustained capacity to inhibit HIV-1 replication in in vitro coculture experiments, as well as prolonged ability to produce IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha in response to stimulation with HIV-1-derived peptides, as compared with vector-transduced controls. Loss of CD28 expression, the signature change of replicative senescence in cell culture, was retarded in those CD8(+) T cell cultures that had high levels of CD28 at the time of hTERT transduction. These findings suggest that telomere shortening may be the primary driving force behind several aspects of CD8(+) T cell dysfunction associated with replicative senescence. We also demonstrate reduced accumulation of the p16(INK4a) and p21(WAF1) cell cycle inhibitors in hTERT-transduced lymphocytes, providing a possible mechanism by which stable hTERT expression is able to circumvent the senescence barrier in CD8(+) T cells. Given the key role of CD8(+) T cell function in controlling a variety of acute and latent viral infections, approaches to retard the functional decrements associated with replicative senescence may lead to novel types of immunotherapy.