- Mononuclear phagocytes, including alveolar macrophages (AM), can be infected by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Acting as accessory cells (AC), AM could infect CD4 lymphocytes through cell-to-cell contact and by inducing T cell proliferation, which increases lymphocyte susceptibility to infection. Using normal allogeneic T cells as responders, AM from infected individuals demonstrated an enhanced ability to stimulate a Con A and pokeweed mitogen lymphocyte proliferation assay compared with normal AM. Exogenous IL 1 enhanced the stimulation of a mitogen response by normal AM, but not from HIV-positive individuals, suggesting increased levels of this cytokine may explain the observed enhancement. However, increased IL 1 secretion by AM from HIV-infected patients could not be demonstrated, either in a bioassay or antigenically using an ELISA for IL-1 beta. Syncytia formation was observed when AM from asymptomatic HIV-positive individuals were cultured with normal T cells, suggesting viral transmission was occurring. Finally, in individual patients the stimulation of a mitogen response was inversely correlated with the CD4/CD8 ratio and total CD4 count, suggesting that enhanced AC function and CD4 cell depletion may be related in vivo. These findings indicate that enhanced AM accessory cell function is seen in HIV-infected individuals and could be a potential mechanism for CD4 cell depletion in the lung.