High levels of an unusual acid-labile interferon (IFN) alpha in sera of patients with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection are associated with disease progression to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Since IFNs have been shown to enhance the cytotoxic actions of tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a potent mediator of inflammation and cachexia, a study was undertaken to investigate whether the acid-labile IFN alpha produced in AIDS can regulate TNF receptor expression. The expression of TNF receptors was determined by studying the interaction of [125I]TNF with cellular receptors. The results show the acid-labile IFN alpha present in AIDS sera is capable of inducing the expression of cellular receptors for TNF. The extent of induction of TNF receptors depends on the concentration of the acid-labile IFN alpha in the AIDS sera. There is no significant induction of TNF receptors when the AIDS sera are preneutralized with polyclonal anti-IFN alpha antibodies. It is also shown that the synthesis of TNF by peripheral blood monocytes (PBM) from patients with HIV infection is enhanced during the progression of HIV infection in vivo. Thus, the TNF system is activated in patients with HIV infection. This activation may be a contributing factor to some of the physiological disturbances including the wasting syndrome observed in AIDS.