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Drug Used to Prevent HIV Transmission from Mother to Child Damages DNA

HIV transmission from mother to child can occur in utero, during labor or from breastfeeding. If left untreated, approximately 25 percent of newborns exposed// to the virus from their infected mothers will become infected themselves and potentially develop AIDS. Fortunately, antiretroviral drug combinations, which typically include AZT (zidovudine), a nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor (NRTI), have reduced the rate of transmission from mother to child to less than 2 percent in infants who are not breast fed.

NRTIs work by inhibiting the viral reverse transcriptase and by incorporating into the viral DNA and terminating nascent strands, thus preventing the virus from duplicating. However, previous research has shown that NRTIs also incorporate into the DNA of host cells, causing damage that could have long-term health consequences for those exposed to the drugs.

Two new animal studies have examined the cancer-causing effects of transplacental exposure to AZT in mice and rats and found increased rates of tumors and tumors with gene changes that frequently occur in human cancer. In addition, two human studies are the first to observe the induction of mutations and large scale chromosomal damage in red blood cells of newborns exposed to NRTIs in utero.

These, and other, studies were published in April 2007 in a special issue of Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis that examines the latest research on DNA damage and potential health risks related to the use of NRTIs. Besides the effects of NRTIs on nuclear DNA and cancer risk, the issue also contains recent findings on the toxicity of these drugs toward mitochondrial DNA. Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis, the official journal of the Environmental Mutagen Society, is published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. and is available online via Wiley InterScience at (http://www.interscience.wiley.com/journal/emm).

Researchers led by Dale M. Walker of Experimental Pathology
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