The anti-HIV drug 3'-azido-3'-deoxythymidine (AZT) is the drug of choice for preventing maternal-fetal HIV transmission during pregnancy. Our aim was to assess the cytotoxic effects of AZT on human placenta in vitro. The mechanisms of AZT-induced effects were investigated using JEG-3 choriocarcinoma cells and primary explant cultures from term and first-trimester human placentas. Cytotoxicity measures included trypan blue exclusion, MTT, and reactive oxygen species (ROS) assays. Apoptosis was measured with an antibody specific to cleaved caspase-3 and by rescue of cells by the general caspase inhibitor Boc-D-FMK. The effect of AZT on the activities of glutathione-S-transferase, beta-glucuronidase, UDP-glucuronosyl transferase, cytochrome P450 (CYP) 1A, and CYP reductase (CYPR) in the placenta was assessed using biochemical assays and immunoblotting. AZT increased ROS levels, decreased cellular proliferation rates, was toxic to mitochondria, and initiated cell death by a caspase-dependent mechanism in the human placenta in vitro. In the absence of serum, the effects of AZT were amplified in all the models used. AZT also increased the amounts of activity of GST, beta-glucuronidase, and CYP1A, whereas UGT and CYPR were decreased. We conclude that AZT causes apoptosis in the placenta and alters metabolizing enzymes in human placental cells. These findings have implications for the safe administration of AZT in pregnancy with respect to the maintenance of integrity of the maternal-fetal barrier. (C) 2003 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.