AZT action on HIV

Zidovudine (INN) or azidothymidine (AZT) (also called ZDV) is an antiretroviral drug, the first approved for treatment of HIV. It is also sold under the names Retrovir® and Retrovis®, and as an ingredient in Combivir® and Trizivir®. It is an analog of thymidine.




Like other reverse transcriptase inhibitors, AZT works by inhibiting the action of reverse transcriptase, the enzyme that HIV uses to make a DNA copy of its RNA. The viral double-stranded DNA is subsequently spliced into the DNA of a target cell, where it is called a provirus.

Mode of action

The azido group increases the lipophilic nature of AZT, allowing it to cross cell membranes easily by diffusion and thereby also to cross the blood-brain barrier. Cellular enzymes convert AZT into the effective 5'-triphosphate form. Studies have shown that the termination of the formed DNA chains is the specific factor in the inhibitory effect.

The triphosphate form also has some ability to inhibit cellular DNA polymerase, which is used by normal cells as part of cell division. However, AZT has a 100- to 300-fold greater affinity for the HIV reverse transcriptase, as compared to the human DNA polymerase, accounting for its selective antiviral activity.A special kind of cellular DNA polymerase that replicates the DNA in mitochondria is relatively more sensitive to inhibition by AZT, and this accounts for certain toxicities such as damage to cardiac and other muscles

Viral resistance

AZT does not destroy the HIV infection, but only delays the progression of the disease and the replication of virus, even at very high doses. During prolonged AZT treatment HIV has the ability to gain an increased resistance to AZT by mutation of the reverse transcriptase. A study showed that AZT could not impede the resumption of virus production, and eventually cells treated with AZT produced viruses as much as the untreated cells. So as to slow the development of resistance, it is generally recommended that AZT be given in combination with another reverse transcriptase inhibitor and an antiretroviral from another group, such as a protease inhibitor or a non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor.

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