Sex Transm Infect 77:158-173 doi:10.1136/sti.77.3.158

Mitochondrial toxicity and HIV therapy

  1. Alex J White
  1. Anti-Infectives Clinical Development and Product Strategy, GlaxoSmithKline Research and Development, Greenford Road, Greenford, Middlesex, UB6 0HE, UK
  1. ajw5819{at}
  • Accepted 22 March 2001


Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) remain the cornerstone of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) combination regimens. However, it has been known for some time that these agents have the potential to cause varied side effects, many of which are thought to be due to their effects on mitochondria. Mitochondria, the key energy generating organelles in the cell, are unique in having their own DNA, a double stranded circular genome of about 16 000 bases. There is a separate enzyme present inside the cell that replicates mitochondrial DNA, polymerase gamma. NRTIs can affect the function of this enzyme and this may lead to depletion of mitochondrial DNA or qualitative changes. The study of inherited mitochondrial diseases has led to further understanding of the consequences of mutations or depletion in mitochondrial DNA. Key among these is the realisation that there may be substantial heteroplasmy among mitochondria within a given cell, and among cells in a particular tissue. The unpredictable nature of mitochondrial segregation during cellular replication makes it difficult to predict the likelihood of dysfunction in a given tissue. In addition, there is a threshold effect for the expression of mitochondrial dysfunction, both at the mitochondrial and cellular level. Various clinical and in vitro studies have suggested that NRTIs are associated with mitochondrial dysfunction in different tissues, although the weight of evidence is limited in many cases. The heterogeneity in the tissues affected by the different drugs raises interesting questions, and possible explanations include differential distribution or activation of these agents. This article reviews the major recognised toxicities associated with NRTI therapy and evidence for mitochondrial dysfunction in these complications. Data were identified through searching of online databases including Medline and Current Contents for relevant articles, along with abstracts and posters from recent conferences in the HIV and mitochondrial fields.