The transport of the antiviral nucleoside analogue zidovudine (3'-azido-3'-deoxythymidine; AZT) into the central nervous system (CNS) was characterized in vitro and in vivo. The in vitro model consisted of primary cultures of isolated bovine capillary endothelial cells. The transport rate of AZT across the monolayer, expressed as endothelial permeability P, was determined following luminal and abluminal administration. P did not differ between the two administration sites (luminal, 1.65 +/- 0.44 cm/min/10(3); abluminal, 1.63 +/- 0.28 cm/min/10(3)). The transport of AZT across the endothelial cell monolayer was found to be concentration independent in the range between 0.4 and 50 micrograms/mL. AZT transport was not affected by pretreatment of the cells with either metabolic inhibitors (DODG and DODG/NaN3) or probenecid. This suggests that AZT passes the monolayer mainly by passive diffusion. The in vivo transport of AZT across the blood-brain barrier and the blood-CSF barrier was studied in male Wistar rats after coadministration of potential inhibitors of active transport of AZT: probenecid (organic anion transport) and thymidine (nucleoside transport). Intracerebroventricular and intravenous coadministration of probenecid caused a significant (P < 0.001) increase in the CSF/plasma concentration ratio compared to the control phase, indicating that the organic anion carrier is involved in AZT transport from CSF to blood. Since there was no effect of probenecid on the transport of AZT in vitro, it is suggested that this carrier is located at the choroid plexus. Coadministration of thymidine did not affect the CSF/plasma concentration ratio, suggesting that a nucleoside carrier system is not involved in AZT transport into or out of the CNS.