Azidothymidine (AZT) and interferon alpha (IFN-alpha) are among the drugs showing strong in vitro activity against the human immunodeficiency virus type-1 (HIV-1). Each drug, however, has significant toxicity against normal marrow progenitor cells that frequently proves dose-limiting in patients. In this study, AZT and recombinant IFN-alpha 2a (rIFN-alpha 2a) were tested as single agents and in combination against normal myeloid (CFU-GM) and erythroid (BFU- E) colony forming cells in a standard methylcellulose culture assay. The data were analyzed using a quantitative computerized analysis based on the median-effect principle and the isobologram equation as described by Chou and Talalay (Adv Enz Regul 22:27, 1984). The ED90 for BFU-E and CFU-GM inhibition was then compared with previously measured in vivo plasma levels of each drug and the ED90 for the anti-HIV-1 effect in vitro. We demonstrate that (a) the drugs are strongly synergistic in inhibiting marrow progenitor cell growth and that this synergism occurs at drug levels that are within the range of measured plasma levels in phase I clinical trials, (b) BFU-E are more sensitive than CFU-GM to the inhibiting effects of AZT, rIFN-alpha 2a or both drugs in combination, (c) the drug concentrations in combination that synergistically inhibit bone marrow progenitors are much higher than those required to inhibit HIV-1 replication in vitro, and (d) the anti- HIV-1 effect for the combination of AZT and rIFN-alpha 2a was clearly superior to the effect of AZT or rIFN-alpha 2a alone as indicated by the combination index and the dose-reduction index. These data suggest that substantially lower doses of AZT and rIFN-alpha than those currently being tested in clinical trials might not only maintain a strong synergistic anti-HIV-1 effect but might also avoid significant hematologic toxicity.