Markedly reduced ecto-5'-nucleotidase activity was found in peripheral blood lymphocytes from 27 out of 30 homosexual men with the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in association with Kaposi's sarcoma (AIDS-KS; 2.67 +/- 1.70 U/10(6) cells; n = 13), opportunistic infections (AIDS-OI; 9.29 +/- 7.32; n = 7), or the AIDS-related complex (ARC; 9.82 +/- 6.12; n = 10). These values were significantly different from healthy controls (22.70 +/- 4.58; p less than 0.001). In AIDS-KS patients, both T cells and non-T cells exhibited significantly reduced ecto-5'-NT activity (p less than 0.001). AIDS-KS CD8 cells contained 20% of the mean ecto-5'-NT activity (7.04 +/- 3.53) displayed by control CD8 cells (34.07 +/- 4.86; p less than 0.001). No significant difference in enzyme level was observed between control and AIDS-KS CD4 cells (11.93 +/- 4.98 vs 7.98 +/- 3.28, respectively). In AIDS patients, lymphocyte ecto-5'-NT activity was inversely related (r = -0.518; p less than 0.01) to the absolute number of OKT10+ cells, but no correlation was found with the number of HLA-DR+ cells (r =-0.224). Two-color analysis of lymphocytes from AIDS-KS patients revealed that 75 +/- 12% of circulating CD8 cells expressed the OKT10 antigen, whereas only 10 +/- 6% of control CD8 cells did. HLA-DR antigens, which are not normally found on circulating resting T cells, were expressed in AIDS-KS CD8 cells, although to a lesser extent than OKT10. These data demonstrate that most AIDS CD8 cells differ from control CD8 cells. Although it has been suggested that these cells are activated cytotoxic or suppressor cells, the data presented here support the hypothesis they are immature. Reduced T cell ecto-5'-NT activity and enhanced expression of OKT10 and HLA-DR antigens on circulating CD8 cells, in conjunction with lack of transferrin receptor-(OKT9) and IL 2 receptor-(Tac) bearing lymphocytes, sustain this latter hypothesis. The correlation of the numerical reduction of CD4 cells with the reduced levels of ecto-5'-NT (r = 0.606; p less than 0.01) suggests that the abnormal maturation of CD8 cells seen in AIDS might be a consequence of the CD4 deficiency characteristic of this syndrome.