HIV patients in highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) develop lipodystrophy and insulin resistance. Protease inhibitors have been shown to alter adipocyte metabolism in murine cell lines. In this study, biological effects of the HIV protease inhibitor, ritonavir, were investigated on human SGBS preadipocytes and adipocytes. Ritonavir dose-dependently impaired preadipocyte proliferation and adipogenic differentiation. Gene expression analysis measured by real-time PCR, showed no effect of ritonavir (up to 20 microM) on expression of mRNA of PPARgamma2 and SREBP1c, but suppressed adiponectin mRNA while increasing IL-6 mRNA expression. In human adipocytes, ritonavir at therapeutic concentrations inhibited insulin-stimulated lipogenesis, reduced GLUT4 mRNA, fatty acid synthase and adiponectin expression, while increasing IL-6 mRNA expression. Finally, long-term treatment (72 and 120 h) of SGBS adipocytes but not preadipocytes with ritonavir induced apoptosis in up to 15% of the cells. All together, these data show effects of ritonavir on human preadipocytes and adipocytes aiming at reducing adipose tissue mass and increasing insulin resistance. These in vitro findings may partly explain the clinical findings in patients under HAART. Furthermore, SGBS cells may serve as a useful tool in further investigation of the mechanism of protease inhibitor action in human adipocytes.