OBJECTIVE To compare the virologic activity of continued lamivudine (3TC) versus a switch to delavirdine (DLV) when initiating protease inhibitor therapy in nucleoside-experienced patients. DESIGN Randomized, open-label, multi-center study. SETTING Adult AIDS clinical trials units. PATIENTS Protease and non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor-naive patients who had received 3TC plus zidovudine (ZDV), stavudine (d4T), or didanosine (ddl) for at least 24 weeks. INTERVENTIONS Patients with plasma HIV-1 RNA levels > 500 copies/ml who previously received d4T + 3TC or ddI + 3TC were randomized to ZDV + 3TC + indinavir (IDV) or ZDV + DLV + IDV. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES Primary endpoints were the proportion of patients with plasma HIV-1 RNA levels < or = 200 copies/ml at 24 weeks, and occurrence of serious adverse events. The proportion of patients with plasma HIV-1 RNA levels < or = 200 copies/ml at week 48 was a secondary endpoint. RESULTS At week 24, 58% of subjects in the ZDV + 3TC + IDV arm and 73% in the ZDV + DLV + IDV arm had plasma HIV-1 RNA levels < or = 200 copies/ml (P = 0.29). At week 48, plasma HIV-1 RNA levels were < or = 200 copies/ml in 48% and 83%, respectively (P = 0.007). Rash and hyperbilirubinemia occurred more frequently in the DLV arm than in the 3TC arm. Steady-state plasma IDV levels were higher among patients in the DLV arm as compared with the 3TC arm. CONCLUSIONS Substituting DLV for 3TC when adding IDV improved virologic outcome in nucleoside-experienced patients. This result might be explained, in part, by the positive effect of DLV on IDV pharmacokinetics.