Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) is clinically important since it can cause severe infections in acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) patients and other immunocompromised individuals. Use of the macrolides clarithromycin and azithromycin has improved the outcome of MAC infections, but therapeutic failure is still a major problem. In this work, we studied efflux pump activity in MAC clinical strains and evaluated the contribution of active efflux to macrolide resistance. Eighteen clinical strains isolated from AIDS patients were evaluated for macrolide resistance in the presence and absence of the efflux pump inhibitors (EPIs) thioridazine, chlorpromazine and verapamil. The efflux activity of these strains was then assessed by a semi-automated fluorometric method that detects extrusion of ethidium bromide (EtBr), a known efflux pump substrate. Resistance to clarithromycin was significantly reduced in the presence of thioridazine, chlorpromazine and verapamil. The same EPIs were effective in decreasing the efflux of EtBr from MAC cells. Moreover, increased retention of [C-14]-erythromycin in the presence of these EPIs further demonstrated that active efflux contributes to MAC resistance to macrolides. This study demonstrates that efflux pumps play an important role in MAC resistance to antibiotics. (C) 2009 Elsevier B.V. and the International Society of Chemotherapy. All rights reserved.