A Critical Analysis of the Pharmacology of AZT and its Use in AIDS

E. Papadopulos-Eleopulos, V.F. Turner, John Papadimitriou, D. Causer, H. Alphonso, T. Miller

    Research output: Contribution to journalLiterature review

    10 Citations (Scopus)


    The tripliosphorylated form of the nucleoside analogue 3 ‘-azido-3’-deoxythymidine (Zidovudine, AZT) is claimed to interrupt the HIV replication cycle by a selective inhibition of viral reverse transcriptase, thereby preventing the formation of new proviral DNA in permissive, uninfected cells. Given that initial HIV infection of an individual instigates abundant HIV replication from inception until death, and that the life of infected T-cells is only several days, the administration of AZT should lead both in vitro and in vivo (i) to decreased formation of proviral DNA; and thus (ii) to decreased frequencies of ‘HIV isolation’ (detection of p24 or reverse transcription or both) in stimulated cultures/cocultures of T-cells from seropositive individuals; (iii) to decreased synthesis of HIV p24 and RNA (‘antigenaemia’, ‘plasma viraemia’, ‘viral load’) ultimately resulting in low or absent levels of all three parameters; and (iv) to a perfect and direct correlation between all these parameters. A critical analysis of the presently available data shows that no such evidence exists, an outcome not unexpected given the pharmacological data on AZT HIV experts all agree that only the triphosphorylated form of AZT (AZTTP) and not the unphosphorylated form administered to patients, nor its mono- or diphosphate, is the active agent. Furthermore, the mechanism of action is the ability of AZTTP to halt the formation of HIV-DNA (chain termination). However, although this claim was posited from the outset, AZT underwent clinical trials and was introduced as a specific anti-HIV drug many years before there were any data proving that the cells of patients are able to triphosphorylate the parent compound to a level considered sufficient for its putative pharmacological action. Notwithstanding, from the evidence published since 1991 it has become apparent that no such phosphorylation takes place and thus AZT cannot possess an anti-HIV effect. However, the scientific literature does elucidate: (i) a number of biochemical mechanisms which predicate the likelihood of widespread, serious toxicity from use of this drug; (ii) in vitro data proving that AZT has significant antibacterial and antiviral properties which confound interpretation of its effects when administered to patients. Based on all these data it is difficult if not impossible to explain why AZT was introduced and still remains the most widely recommended and used anti-HIV drug.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)S1-S45
    JournalCurrent Medical Research and Opinion
    Issue numberSupplement 1
    Publication statusPublished - 1999


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