Protease inhibitors in patients with HIV disease. Clinically important pharmacokinetic considerations

Clin Pharmacokinet. 1997 Mar;32(3):194-209. doi: 10.2165/00003088-199732030-00003.


Since its introduction in 1987, zidovudine monotherapy has been the treatment of choice for patients with HIV infection. Unfortunately it has been established that the beneficial effects of zidovudine are not sustained due to the development of resistant viral strains. This has led to the strategy of combination therapy, and in 1995 treatment with zidovudine plus didanosine, or zidovudine plus zalcitabine, was demonstrated to be more effective than zidovudine monotherapy in preventing disease progression and reducing mortality in patients with HIV disease. Recent work demonstrates an even greater antiviral effect from triple therapy with 2 nucleosides, zidovudine plus zalcitabine with the addition of saquinavir, a new protease inhibitor drug. The HIV protease enzyme is responsible for the post-translational processing of gag and gag-pol polyprotein precursors, and its inhibition by drugs such as saquinavir, ritonavir, indinavir and VX-478 results in the production of non-infectious virions. As resistance may also develop to the protease inhibitors they may be used in combination, and future strategies may well include quadruple therapy with 2 nucleoside analogues plus 2 protease inhibitors. Administration of protease inhibitors alone or in combination with other drugs does raise a number of important pharmacokinetic issues for patients with HIV disease. Some protease inhibitors (e.g. saquinavir) have kinetic profiles characterised by reduced absorption and a high first pass effect, resulting in poor bioavailability which may be improved by administrating with food. Physiological factors including achlorhydria, malabsorption and hepatic dysfunction may influence the bioavailability of protease inhibitors in HIV disease. Protease inhibitors are very highly bound to plasma proteins (> 98%), predominantly to alpha 1-acid glycoprotein. This may influence their antiviral activity in vitro and may also predispose to plasma protein displacement interactions. Such interactions are usually only of clinical relevance if the metabolism of the displaced drug is also inhibited. This is precisely the situation likely to pertain to the protease inhibitors, as ritonavir may displace other protease inhibitor drugs, such as saquinavir, from plasma proteins and inhibit their metabolism. Protease inhibitors are extensively metabolised by the cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes present in the liver and small intestine. In vitro studies suggest that the most influential CYP isoenzyme involved in the metabolism of the protease inhibitors is CYP3A, with the isoforms CYP2C9 and CYP2D6 also contributing. Ritonavir has an elimination half-life (t1/2 beta) of 3 hours, indinavir 2 hours and saquinavir between 7 and 12 hours. Renal elimination is not significant, with less than 5% of ritonavir and saquinavir excreted in the unchanged form. As patients with HIV disease are likely to be taking multiple prolonged drug regimens this may lead to drug interactions as a result of enzyme induction or inhibition. Recognised enzyme inducers of CYP3A, which are likely to be prescribed for patients with HIV disease, include rifampicin (rifampin) [treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis], rifabutin (treatment and prophylaxis of Mycobacterium avium complex), phenobarbital (phenobarbitone), phenytoin and carbamazepine (treatment of seizures secondary to cerebral toxoplasmosis or cerebral lymphoma). These drugs may reduce the plasma concentrations of the protease inhibitors and reduce their antiviral efficacy. If coadministered drugs are substrates for a common CYP enzyme, the elimination of one or both drugs may be impaired. Drugs which are metabolised by CYP3A and are likely to be used in the treatment of patients with HIV disease include the azole antifungals, macrolide antibiotics and dapsone; therefore, protease inhibitors may interact with these drugs. (ABSTRACT TRUNCATED)

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-HIV Agents / therapeutic use
  • Biological Availability
  • Blood Proteins / metabolism
  • HIV Infections / drug therapy*
  • HIV Infections / metabolism
  • Half-Life
  • Humans
  • Metabolic Clearance Rate
  • Protease Inhibitors / metabolism
  • Protease Inhibitors / pharmacokinetics*
  • Protease Inhibitors / therapeutic use*
  • Zidovudine / therapeutic use


  • Anti-HIV Agents
  • Blood Proteins
  • Protease Inhibitors
  • Zidovudine