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Humans are exposed daily to a wide variety of foreign compounds called xenobiotics—substances absorbed across the lungs or skin or, more commonly, ingested either unintentionally as compounds present in food and drink or deliberately as drugs for therapeutic or "recreational" purposes. Exposure to environmental xenobiotics may be inadvertent and accidental or—when they are present as components of air, water, and food—inescapable. Some xenobiotics are innocuous, but many can provoke biologic responses. Such biologic responses often depend on conversion of the absorbed substance into an active metabolite. The discussion that follows is applicable to xenobiotics in general (including drugs) and to some extent to endogenous compounds.


Renal excretion plays a pivotal role in terminating the biologic activity of some drugs, particularly those that have small molecular volumes or possess polar characteristics, such as functional groups that are fully ionized at physiologic pH. However, many drugs do not possess such physicochemical properties. Pharma-cologically active organic molecules tend to be lipophilic and remain unionized or only partially ionized at physiologic pH; these are readily reabsorbed from the glomerular filtrate in the nephron. Certain lipophilic compounds are often strongly bound to plasma proteins and may not be readily filtered at the glomerulus. Consequently, most drugs would have a prolonged duration of action if termination of their action depended solely on renal excretion.


An alternative process that can lead to the termination or alteration of biologic activity is metabolism. In general, lipophilic xenobiotics are transformed to more polar and hence more readily excreted products. The role that metabolism plays in the inactivation of lipid-soluble drugs can be quite dramatic. For example, lipophilic barbiturates such as thiopental and pentobarbital would have extremely long half-lives if it were not for their metabolic conversion to more water-soluble compounds.


Metabolic products are often less pharmacodynamically active than the parent drug and may even be inactive. However, some biotransformation products have enhanced activity or toxic properties. It is noteworthy that the synthesis of endogenous substrates such as steroid hormones, cholesterol, active vitamin D congeners, and bile acids involves many pathways catalyzed by enzymes associated with the metabolism of xenobiotics. Finally, drug-metabolizing enzymes have been exploited in the design of pharmacologically inactive prodrugs that are converted to active molecules in the body.


Most metabolic biotransformations occur at some point between absorption of the drug into the general circulation and its renal elimination. A few transformations occur in the intestinal lumen or intestinal wall. In general, all of these reactions can be assigned to one of two major categories called phase I and phase II reactions (Figure 4–1).

Figure 4–1
Graphic Jump Location

Phase I and phase II reactions, and direct elimination, in drug biodisposition. Phase II reactions may also precede phase I reactions.


Phase I reactions usually convert the parent drug to a more polar metabolite by ...

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