The Nitrogen Mustards

Pharmacol Rev. 2022 Jul;74(3):552-599. doi: 10.1124/pharmrev.120.000121.


The nitrogen mustards are powerful cytotoxic and lymphoablative agents and have been used for more than 60 years. They are employed in the treatment of cancers, sarcomas, and hematologic malignancies. Cyclophosphamide, the most versatile of the nitrogen mustards, also has a place in stem cell transplantation and the therapy of autoimmune diseases. Adverse effects caused by the nitrogen mustards on the central nervous system, kidney, heart, bladder, and gonads remain important issues. Advances in analytical techniques have facilitated the investigation of the pharmacokinetics of the nitrogen mustards, especially the oxazaphosphorines, which are prodrugs requiring metabolic activation. Enzymes involved in the metabolism of cyclophosphamide and ifosfamide are very polymorphic, but a greater understanding of the pharmacogenomic influences on their activity has not yet translated into a personalized medicine approach. In addition to damaging DNA, the nitrogen mustards can act through other mechanisms, such as antiangiogenesis and immunomodulation. The immunomodulatory properties of cyclophosphamide are an area of current exploration. In particular, cyclophosphamide decreases the number and activity of regulatory T cells, and the interaction between cyclophosphamide and the intestinal microbiome is now recognized as an important factor. New derivatives of the nitrogen mustards continue to be assessed. Oxazaphosphorine analogs have been synthesized in attempts to both improve efficacy and reduce toxicity, with varying degrees of success. Combinations of the nitrogen mustards with monoclonal antibodies and small-molecule targeted agents are being evaluated. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: The nitrogen mustards are important, well-established therapeutic agents that are used to treat a variety of diseases. Their role is continuing to evolve.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents* / adverse effects
  • Cyclophosphamide / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Nitrogen / therapeutic use
  • Nitrogen Mustard Compounds* / therapeutic use


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Nitrogen Mustard Compounds
  • Cyclophosphamide
  • Nitrogen