Pharmacology of nucleoside and nucleotide reverse transcriptase inhibitor-induced mitochondrial toxicity

Clin Ther. 2000 Jun;22(6):685-708. doi: 10.1016/S0149-2918(00)90004-3.


Objective: This paper reviews the function of the mitochondria and the mechanisms by which nucleoside and nucleotide reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) cause mitochondrial toxicity.

Background: Highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) reduces rates of morbidity and mortality due to HIV disease. However, long-term treatment with these drugs may be associated with adverse effects. Nucleoside and nucleotide analogues are potent inhibitors of HIV reverse transcriptase and have become the cornerstone of HAART. Unfortunately, these drugs have also been shown to inhibit cellular polymerases, most notably mitochondrial DNA polymerase gamma.

Results: Studies of the NRTIs in enzyme assays and cell cultures demonstrate the following hierarchy of mitochondrial DNA polymerase gamma inhibition: zalcitabine > didanosine > stavudine > lamivudine > zidovudine > abacavir. In vitro investigations have also documented impairment of the mitochondrial enzymes adenylate kinase and the adenosine diphosphate/adenosine triphosphate translocator. Inhibition of DNA polymerase gamma and other mitochondrial enzymes can gradually lead to mitochondrial dysfunction and cellular toxicity. The clinical manifestations of NRTI-induced mitochondrial toxicity resemble those of inherited mitochondrial diseases (ie, hepatic steatosis, lactic acidosis, myopathy, nephrotoxicity, peripheral neuropathy, and pancreatitis). Fat redistribution syndrome, or HIV-associated lipodystrophy, is another side effect attributed in part to NRTI therapy. The morphologic and metabolic complications of this syndrome are similar to those of the mitochondrial disorder known as multiple symmetric lipomatosis: suggesting that this too may be related to mitochondrial toxicity. The pathophysiology of less common adverse effects of nucleoside analogue therapy, such as diabetes, ototoxicity, and retinal lesions, may be related to mitochondrial dysfunction but have not been adequately studied.

Conclusion: NRTls can block both HIV reverse transcriptase and mitochondrial DNA polymerase gamma. Inhibition of the latter enzyme is the most likely cause of the adverse effects associated with these drugs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anti-HIV Agents / pharmacology
  • Anti-HIV Agents / toxicity*
  • Drug Synergism
  • Humans
  • Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors / toxicity*


  • Anti-HIV Agents
  • Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors