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Drugs commonly administered to patients infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) have been studied for their propensity to alter the intracellular phosphorylation of the anti-HIV nucleoside analog stavudine (2',3'-dideoxy-2',3'-didehydrothymidine; d4T) in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) and U937 cells in vitro. PBMCs isolated from the blood of healthy volunteers were stimulated by the mitogen phytohemagglutinin (10 microg/ml) for 72 h. Stimulated PBMCs (3 x 10(6) cells/plate) were then incubated with [3H]d4T (0.65 microCi; 3 microM) and either acyclovir, dapsone, ddC, ddI, fluconazole, foscarnet, ganciclovir, itraconazole, lobucavir, ranitidine, ribavirin, rifampin, sorivudine, sulfamethoxazole, trimethoprim, lamivudine (3TC), zidovudine, or thymidine (30 and 300 microM) for 24 h. Doxorubicin and drugs showing some evidence of inhibition were also studied at 0.3 and 3 microM. Cells were extracted overnight with 60% methanol prior to analysis by radiometric high-performance liquid chromatography. Additional data for nine of the drugs were obtained by incubation with [3H]d4T in U937 cells for 24 h. The effect of d4T (0.2 to 20 microM) on zidovudine (0.65 microCi; 0.018 microCi) phosphorylation was also studied. Zidovudine significantly reduced d4T total phosphates in PBMCs and U937 cells (in PBMCs to 33% [P < 0.001] and 17% [P < 0.001] of that in control cells at 3 and 30 microM, respectively). A small reduction in zidovudine phosphorylation was seen with d4T but only at d4T:zidovudine ratios of 100 and 1,000. Of the other compounds screened, only thymidine, ribavirin, and doxorubicin produced inhibition of d4T phosphorylation in both PBMCs and U937 cells. However, doxorubicin was cytotoxic at 3 microM. The decrease in d4T phosphorylation in the presence of ribavirin is consistent with previous findings with zidovudine. Although ddC significantly inhibited the phosphorylation of d4T in PBMCs, this was not seen in U937 cells, and it is probable that the findings in PBMCs are related to mitochondrial toxicity [based on 3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyl tetrazolium bromide cytotoxicity assay]. The only drugs screened which may interfere with d4T phosphorylation at clinically relevant concentrations were zidovudine, ribavirin, and doxorubicin.