Abacavir, (-)-(1S,4R)-4-[2-amino-6-(cyclopropylamino)-9H-purin-9-yl]-2-cyclopentene-1-methanol, is a novel purine carbocyclic nucleoside analogue that has been approved by the FDA for the treatment of HIV (as Ziagen trade mark [abacavir sulfate]). Chemically, abacavir and (-)-carbovir (CBV) differ only at the 6-position of the purine ring; abacavir contains a cyclopropylamino moiety in place of the 6-lactam functionality of CBV. Intracellularly both are ultimately metabolized to CBV triphosphate. We compared the membrane permeation characteristics of these two compounds at 20 degrees C in human erythrocytes and in human T-lymphoblastoid CD4+ CEM cells, using a "papaverine-stop" assay. In erythrocytes, abacavir influx was rapid, nonsaturable (rate constant=200 pmol/s/mM/microl cell water), and unaffected by inhibitors of nucleoside or nucleobase transport. CBV influx was slow, saturable, strongly inhibited by adenine or hypoxanthine, and occurred via both the nucleobase carrier (Vmax=0.67 pmol/s/microl cell water; Km=50 microM) and the nucleoside carrier (Vmax=0.47 pmol/s/microl cell water; Km=440 microM). Similar qualitative results were obtained with CD4+ CEM cells, although CBV influx rates were somewhat higher and abacavir influx rates lower, compared to the corresponding rates in erythrocytes. Equilibrium studies further revealed that both compounds are concentrated intracellularly, but nonmetabolically, in both cell types, apparently due to cytosolic protein binding (absent in erythrocyte ghosts). We conclude that, in both cell types, while CBV influx is slow and carrier-dependent, abacavir influx occurs rapidly by nonfacilitated diffusion. The membrane permeation characteristics of abacavir are consistent with its superior oral bioavailability and its impressive ability to penetrate the central nervous system.