Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-associated posttransplant lymphoproliferative disease (PTLD) is an uncommon but potentially fatal complication of immunosuppression in solid-organ transplant recipients. A semiquantitative DNA polymerase chain reaction assay was developed to amplify a unique 269-bp region of the EBNA-1 gene in peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL) using the primers described by Telenti et al (J Clin Microbiol 28:2187, 1990). Serial samples were studied from 23 transplant recipients, 12 of whom were diagnosed with PTLD. The majority of transplant recipients who were EBV seropositive at the time of transplant surgery and who did not develop PTLD (5 of 7, 71%) exhibited less than a 10-fold increase in the levels of EBV-infected PBL over the 0.1 to 5 EBV genomes/10(6) PBL observed in immunocompetent EBV seropositive controls. Transplant recipients who were seronegative at the time of transplantation and who underwent a primary EBV infection but did not develop PTLD exhibited a reduced capacity to control viremia because the levels of EBV-infected PBL were up to 400 times greater than the 1.0 to 50 EBV genomes/10(6) PBL observed in individuals undergoing acute infectious mononucleosis (Rocci et al: N Engl J Med 296:132, 1977). However, all transplant recipients who developed PTLD exhibited a marked elevation of EBV-infected PBL independent of their serologic state at the time of transplantation. Six of the 10 transplant recipients with PTLD exhibited > or = 300,000 EBV genomes/10(5) PBL, two exhibited 10,000 to 50,000 EBV-infected genomes/10(5) PBL, and one each exhibited 2,500 and 500 EBV genomes/10(5) PBL. However, the latter two samples were obtained 4 to 5 weeks after the diagnosis of PTLD and may reflect a decrease in viral load resulting from immunomodulation. Marked decreases in the levels of EBV nuclear antigen-1 (EBNA-1), EBNA-2, and EBNA-LP antibodies correlated with the increase in EBV-infected PBL. Hence, a quantitative difference in circulating EBV viral load and EBNA antibody levels is evident between transplant recipients with and without PTLD and may be useful as a noninvasive prognostic marker with which to monitor and/or predict the development of PTLD.