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Zidovudine (Molecule of the Month for April 2007)

Azidothymidine, AZT, ZDV, Retrovir, Retrovis

Zidovudine or azidothymidine (AZT) is an antiretroviral drug, the first approved for treatment of HIV. Zidovudine was the first drug approved for the treatment of AIDS and HIV infection. 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. Jerome Horwitz of Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute and Wayne State University School of Medicine first synthesized AZT in 1964, under a US National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant. It was originally intended to treat cancer, but failed to show efficacy and had an unacceptably high side effect profile. In 1985, when Samuel Broder, Hiroaki Mitsuya, and Robert Yarchoan, three scientists in the National Cancer Institute (NCI), collaborating with Janet Rideout and several other scientists at Burroughs Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline), started working on it as an AIDS drug. After showing that this drug was an effective agent against HIV in vitro, the team conducted the initial clinical trial that provided evidence that it could increase CD4 counts in AIDS patients.

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.

AZT may be used in combination with other antiretroviral medications to substantially reduce the risk of HIV infection following a significant exposure to the virus (such as a needle-stick injury involving blood or body fluids from an individual known to be infected with HIV). AZT is also recommended as part of a regimen to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV during pregnancy, labor and delivery. With no treatment, approximately 25% of infants whose mothers are infected with HIV will become infected. AZT has been shown to reduce this risk to approximately 8% when given in a three-part regimen during pregnancy, delivery and to the infant for 6 weeks after birth. Use of appropriate combinations of antiretroviral medications and cesarean section when necessary can further reduce mother-child transmission of HIV to 1-2%. Common side effects of AZT include nausea, headache, changes in body fat, and discoloration of fingernails and toenails. More severe side effects include anaemia and bone marrow suppression. These unwanted side effects might be caused by the sensitivity of the γ-DNA polymerase in the cell mitochondria. AZT has been shown to work additively or synergistically with many anti-HIV agents; however, acyclovir and ribavirin decrease the antiviral effect of AZT.

Formal Chemical Name (IUPAC)



Picture of Zidovudine

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Picture of Zidovudine

C10 H13 N5 O4

Update by Karl Harrison
(Molecule of the Month for April 2007 )