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In what can be described as a setback to the AIDS program in poor countries like Africa, the NRTI class of drugs used for treating AIDS has been found to cause premature aging.

The NRTI Class of Drugs Used for Treating AIDS can Lead to Premature Aging

The nucleoside analog reverse-transcriptase inhibitors or NRTIs belong to the older generation of antiretroviral drugs which were developed by GSK and introduced in the late 1980s. They were a huge success then and helped in making HIV a manageable chronic disease. However now, British researchers, lead by Patrick Chinnery, have found that the NRTI class of drugs can lead to age related illnesses such as heart disease and dementia and can cause premature aging.


The study, published in the journal Nature Genetics claims that these side effects of NRTIs is due to damage to the mitochondria which are the energy suppliers of a cell. They cause errors in the DNA of the mitochondria during the replication of cells. As a result, a person taking NRTIs has as much mitochondrial damage within 10 years as would normally develop within a course of 20 to 30 years. Therefore, patients on NRTIs appear frail and show signs of heart disease and dementia.

These NRTIS are no longer used in the developed world where they have been replaced by better but costlier alternates with fewer side effects. However, NRTIS are still being used in poor regions of the world like Africa because owing to their low cost, they are the only option available.

Antiretroviral Drugs are the Mainstay of AIDS Treatment

Antiretroviral drugs are the mainstay of AIDS treatment. There are five types of antiretroviral drugs in use. The oldest are the Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors. The newer ones to be introduced include Fusion/ entry inhibitors and integrase inhibitors. They have comparatively fewer side effects but are available only in resource rich countries. The poor countries are still dependant on the older generation of antiretroviral drugs. Even though they are not perfect, they add an extra 10 to 20 years to the life of an AIDS patient.

According to the latest United Nations data, about 33.3 million people had HIV that causes AIDS in 2009, out of which 22.5 million patients were from Africa alone. The NRTI class of drugs is absolutely necessary over it’s irrespective of their side effects.

The researchers of the study found the damaged mitochondria in the muscle cells of the patients who had been treated with NRTIs as long as ten years ago. The newer AIDS drugs manufactured by companies like Gilead, Merck, Pfizer and GSK are unlikely to cause damage to the mitochondria. However, this type of damage takes time to become apparent. Therefore more research is needed before the newer generations of antiretroviral drugs are declared absolutely safe.

  • “AIDS drugs can cause premature ageing: study”, Kate Kelland, Reuters, published on Jun 26, 2011, accessed on Jul 11, 2011.
  • “Introduction to HIV and AIDS treatment”, avert.org, accessed on Jul 11, 2011
  • Photo courtesy of Dwan Mac on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/dwanmac/4151071365/

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