The pyrophosphate analogue, foscarnet, selectively inhibits the DNA polymerase of human herpes viruses, including cytomegalovirus, and the reverse transcriptase of HIV. Viral replication is therefore prevented, but resumes when the drug is cleared from infected cells. In vitro, the combination of foscarnet and zidovudine (azidothymidine) has an additive effect against cytomegalovirus and acts synergistically against HIV. An improvement in cytomegalovirus retinitis is obtained in over 85% of affected AIDS patients during foscarnet induction therapy, but relapse usually occurs within a month of ceasing treatment. There is a similar duration of remission during maintenance therapy given for 5 days each week, but this can be extended 4- to 5-fold with daily administration of higher doses. In allograft recipients, progression of retinitis can be halted by foscarnet until immune function recovers and eradicates the virus. The incidence of acute renal failure, which is common during foscarnet therapy, may be reduced by dosage adjustment and adequate prehydration. Anaemia, phlebitis, nausea and vomiting, and disturbances in serum calcium and phosphate levels, perhaps resulting from uptake of foscarnet into bone or chelation with ionised calcium, have also been associated with administration of the drug. Cytomegalovirus retinitis is difficult to treat, with few therapeutic options available. Although treatment with foscarnet produces some severe adverse effects, with care these can be minimised, and the drug produces clinical improvement in a large proportion of patients; this is a highly encouraging finding at this stage in its development. Preliminary comparative data indicate that foscarnet and ganciclovir are similarly effective, but foscarnet may have some theoretical advantages in AIDS patients since it can be used in combination with zidovudine without potentiating myelosuppression.