(-)-2'-deoxy-3'-thiacytidine (3TC) has been shown to be a potent, selective inhibitor of HIV replication in vitro, which requires phosphorylation to its 5'-triphosphate for antiviral activity. The intracellular concentration of 3TC 5'-triphosphate in phytohaemagglutinin (PHA)-stimulated peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL) shows a linear dependence on the extracellular concentration of 3TC up to an extracellular 3TC concentration of 10 microM. At this extracellular concentration of 3TC, the resulting intracellular concentration of 3TC 5'-triphosphate is 5 microM. This value is similar to the inhibition constant (Ki) values for the competitive inhibition of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) reverse transcriptase and human DNA polymerases (10-16 microM) by 3TC 5'-triphosphate. Since the concentration of 3TC producing 90% inhibition (IC90) of HIV replication in PBLs has been reported to be 76 nM, the antiviral activity of 3TC requires intracellular concentrations of 3TC 5'-triphosphate, which would result in very little inhibition of reverse transcriptase if its sole mode of action was competitive inhibition. This apparent discrepency may be explained by the ability of 3TC 5'-triphosphate to act as a substrate for reverse transcriptase. Primer extension assays have shown that 3TC 5'-triphosphate is a substrate for HIV-1 reverse transcriptase and DNA polymerase gamma, resulting in the incorporation of 3TC 5'-monophosphate into DNA. In the case of DNA polymerase gamma, the product of this reaction (i.e. double-stranded DNA with 3TC 5'-monophosphate incorporated at the 3'-terminus of the primer strand) is also a substrate for the 3'-5' exonuclease activity of this enzyme. This may explain the low levels of mitochondrial toxicity observed with 3TC.