6-Thioguanine nucleotides are the sum of 6-thioguanosine 5'-monophosphate (TGMP), -diphosphate (TGDP), and -triphosphate (TGTP) representing essential metabolites involved in drug action of thiopurines. Elevated levels of TGDP have been associated with poor response to azathioprine therapy in patients with inflammatory bowel disease. The conversion of TGDP to TGTP is supposed to be catalyzed by nucleoside diphosphate kinase (NDPK). The aim of this work was to investigate simultaneously individual 6-thioguanosine phosphate levels and NDPK activity in red blood cells (RBCs) of patients on azathioprine therapy. Ion-pair high-performance liquid chromatography methods with fluorescence and ultraviolet detection were applied to quantify individual levels of 6-thioguanosine 5'-phosphates and NDPK activity, respectively, in RBCs. Recombinantly expressed NDPK isoforms A and B were unequivocally identified to catalyze the formation of TGTP (30.6 +/- 3.88 nmol x min x mg for NDPK A versus 41.2 +/- 1.05 nmol x min x mg for NDPK B). Comprehensive analyses on the stability of TGMP, TGDP, and TGTP and the reproducibility of NDPK activity in RBCs were performed to provide a reliable sampling protocol for clinical practice. Of note, isolation of RBCs within 6 hours followed by immediate storage at -80 degrees C is crucial for prevention of degradation of 5'-phosphates. In a clinical study of 37 patients on azathioprine, TGTP was the predominant 6-thioguanosine phosphate in RBCs. In contrast, three patients showed TGTP/(TGDP + TGTP) ratios of 57.2%, 64.3%, and 66% corresponding to elevated TGDP levels. NDPK activity ranged from 4.1 to 11.3 nmol x min x mg hemoglobin. No correlation between NDPK activity and the 6-thioguanosine phosphate levels was found. The question whether interindividual variability of NDPK activity may explain differences in 6-thioguanosine 5'-phosphates levels has to be investigated in a prospective large-scale study.