The antiretroviral action of 2',3'-dideoxycytidine (ddCyd) depends on its intracellular conversion to the 5'-triphosphate metabolite ddCTP. The effect of natural pyrimidines and pyrimidine nucleosides, as well as of a number of inhibitors of pyrimidine nucleotide synthesis (i.e., N-(phosphonacetyl)-L-aspartate, 6-azauridine, pyrazofurin, 3-deazauridine, and hydroxyurea) on the metabolism of the potent anti-human immunodeficiency virus drug ddCyd has been investigated in human and murine cell lines. Deoxycytidine (dCyd) and cytidine (Cyd) effectively blocked the intracellular phosphorylation of ddCyd: dCyd by competition with ddCyd for 2'-deoxycytidine kinase, and Cyd probably by competition with the higher nucleoside mono- and diphosphate kinases. These conclusions are supported by the observations that (i) the cytostatic effects of ddCyd against human Molt/4F cells are significantly reversed by dCyd; (ii) the antiviral effects of ddCyd against hman immunodeficiency virus-infected human ATH8 cells are reversed by dCyd and Cyd; (iii) phosphorylated metabolites of ddCyd could not be detected in a 2'-deoxycytidine kinase-deficient murine leukemia (L1210)/araC cell line; and (iv) ddCyd lacked any cytostatic effect against this araC-resistant L1210 cell line. In contrast to dCyd and Cyd, thymidine (dThd) stimulated formation of phosphorylated ddCyd metabolites. The degree of this stimulation proved dependent on preincubation time and dThd concentration. There was a correlation between the increased ddCTP levels upon preincubation of the cells with dThd, and decreased dCyd-5'-triphosphate pools, presumably caused by inhibition of cytidine-5' -diphosphate reductase by dThd-5'-triphosphate. In an attempt to discover compounds other than dThd that are able to stimulate ddCTP formation, a number of inhibitors of pyrimidine nucleotide metabolism were also studied. Under our experimental conditions, 3-deazauridine and hydroxyurea proved equally as effective as dThd in stimulating ddCyd phosphorylation. Finally, we could demonstrate that dThd significantly enhanced the protective effect of ddCyd against human immunodeficiency virus-infected ATH8 cells.