The precise role played by HIV-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) in HIV infection remains controversial. Despite strong CTL responses being generated during the asymptomatic phase, the virus persists and AIDS ultimately develops. It has been argued that the virus is so variable, and the virus turnover so great that escape from CTL recognition would occur continually, but so far there is limited evidence for CTL escape. The opposing argument is that evidence for CTL escape is present but hard to find because multiple anti-HIV immune responses are acting simultaneously during the asymptomatic phase of infection. We describe six donors who make a strong CTL response to an immunodominant HLA-B27-restricted epitope. In the two donors who progressed to AIDS, CTL escape to fixation by the same mutation was observed, but only after 9-12 years of epitope stability. CTL escape may play an important role in the pathogenesis of HIV infection.