We previously reported the presence in platelet eluates of autoantibodies directed against epitopes of the platelet glycoprotein (GP)IIb/IIIa complex in acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)-free human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-infected patients with immunologic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP). We investigated whether HIV antibodies recognized platelet membrane antigens to determine whether the virus might be directly or indirectly responsible for the thrombocytopenia in this context. Direct eluates of platelets from 25 patients with HIV- related ITP contained IgG reacting with HIV-GP160/120 and also, in 45% of patients, detectable antiplatelet antibodies, immunochemically characterized as anti-GPIIb and/or anti-GPIIIa in 5 patients. Furthermore, serum HIV-GP160/120 antibodies could be absorbed on and eluted from platelets from normal non-HIV-infected healthy blood donors (indirect eluates). In contrast, GP160/120 antibodies present in the serum of nonthrombocytopenic HIV-infected patients were not absorbable on normal platelets in most patients, suggesting a pathogenic role in HIV-related ITP. We performed detailed studies of a patient with the highest titer of both HIV-GP160/120 and GPIIb/IIIa antibodies in direct and indirect platelet eluates. No antibody binding to GPIIb/IIIa- deficient Glanzmann thrombasthenic platelets was detected. Furthermore, binding/elution experiments conducted with insoluble recombinant GP160 (expressed in baculovirus) and purified platelet GPIIb/IIIa demonstrated that the patient's IgG bound specifically, through the F(ab')2 portion, to a common epitope of HIV-GP160/120 and platelet GPIIb/IIIa. This common epitope was present on a recombinant GP160 expressed in baculovirus but absent from another recombinant GP160 expressed in vaccinia virus, suggesting that the cross-reactivity is dependent on the glycosylation or conformational structure of the GP. We conclude that molecular mimicry between HIV-GP160/120 and platelet GPIIb/IIIa may explain at least some cases of ITP in AIDS-free HIV- infected patients.