The administration of CycloSaligenyl 3'-azido-2',3'-dideoxythymidine monophosphate (CycloSal-AZTMP) to CEM cells resulted in a concentration- and time-dependent conversion to the 5'-monophosphate (AZTMP), 5'-diphosphate (AZTDP), and 5'-triphosphate (AZTTP) derivatives. High ratios of AZTMP/AZTTP were found in the CEM cell cultures treated with CycloSal-AZTMP. The intracellular T(1/2) of AZTTP in CEM cell cultures treated with either AZT and CycloSal-AZTMP was approximately 3 h. A variety of human T- and B-lymphocyte cell lines efficiently converted the prodrug to the AZT metabolites, whereas peripheral blood lymphocytes and primary monocyte/macrophages showed at least 10-fold lower metabolic conversion of the prodrug. CycloSal-AZTMP failed to generate marked levels of AZT metabolites in thymidine kinase-deficient CEM/TK(-) cells, an observation that is in agreement with the substantial loss of antiviral activity of CycloSal-AZTMP in CEM/TK(-) cells. The inability of CycloSal-AZTMP to generate AZTMP in CEM/TK(-) cells is presumably due to a relatively high hydrolysis rate of AZTMP to the parent nucleoside AZT, combined with the inability of CEM/TK(-) cells to phosphorylate AZT to AZTMP through the cytosolic salvage enzyme thymidine kinase.