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Fialuridine (FIAU) is a nucleoside analog with potent activity against hepatitis B virus in vitro and in vivo. In this report, the effect of FIAU on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) replication in vitro was investigated. CEM cells, a cell line derived from human T cells, were incubated for 6 days in up to 20 microM FIAU. Total cellular DNA was isolated, normalized for the number of cells, and slot hybridized to a probe specific for mtDNA sequences. Treatment of CEM cells with FIAU did not result in a dose-dependent decrease in the amount of mtDNA. In contrast, dideoxycytidine (ddC) inhibited mtDNA replication by 50% at a concentration of approximately 0.1 microM. After 6 days of incubation, both compounds displayed a 50% toxic dose at a concentration of approximately 2 microM in CEM cells and approximately 34 microM in human hepatoblastoma cells (HepG2). In further experiments, CEM cells were incubated for 15 days in up to 2.5 microM FIAU, and again, no inhibition of mtDNA was observed. Over a 6-day incubation, FIAU, at concentrations of up to 200 microM, also failed to inhibit mtDNA replication in either HepG2 or HepG2 cells which constitutively replicate duck hepatitis B virus. In contrast, ddC inhibited mtDNA replication in these cells with a 50% inhibitory concentration of approximately 0.2 microM over a 6-day incubation. Treatment of cells with either FIAU or ddC resulted in a dose-dependent increase in lactate levels in the cell medium, indicating that any effect of FIAU on mitochondrial function may not be related to inhibition of mtDNA replication on the basis of the in vitro data. Alternative explanations for mitochondrial toxicity are considered.