Cytochrome P450 3A: ontogeny and drug disposition

Clin Pharmacokinet. 1999 Dec;37(6):485-505. doi: 10.2165/00003088-199937060-00004.


The maturation of organ systems during fetal life and childhood exerts a profound effect on drug disposition. The maturation of drug-metabolising enzymes is probably the predominant factor accounting for age-associated changes in non-renal drug clearance. The group of drug-metabolising enzymes most studied are the cytochrome P450 (CYP) superfamily. The CYP3A subfamily is the most abundant group of CYP enzymes in the liver and consists of at least 3 isoforms: CYP3A4, 3A5 and 3A7. Many drugs are mainly metabolised by the CYP3A subfamily. Therefore, maturational changes in CYP3A ontogeny may impact on the clinical pharmacokinetics of these drugs. CYP3A4 is the most abundantly expressed CYP and accounts for approximately 30 to 40% of the total CYPcontent in human adult liver and small intestine. CYP3A5 is 83% homologous to CYP3A4, is expressed at a much lower level than CYP3A4 in the liver, but is the main CYP3A isoform in the kidney. CYP3A7 is the major CYP isoform detected in human embryonic, fetal and newborn liver, but is also detected in adult liver, although at a much lower level than CYP3A4. Substrate specificity for the individual isoforms has not been fully elucidated. Because of large interindividual differences in CYP3A4 and 3A5 expression and activity, genetic polymorphisms have been suggested. However, although some gene mutations have been identified, the impact of these mutations on the pharmacokinetics of CYP3A substrates has to be established. Ontogeny of CYP3A activity has been studied in vitro and in vivo. CYP3A7 activity is high during embryonic and fetal life and decreases rapidly during the first week of life. Conversely, CYP3A4 is very low before birth but increases rapidly thereafter, reaching 50% of adult levels between 6 and 12 months of age. During infancy, CYP3A4 activity appears to be slightly higher than that of adults. Large interindividual variations in CYP3A5 expression and activity were observed during all stages of development, but no apparent developmental pattern of CYP3A5 activity has been identified to date. Profound changes occur in the activity of CYP3A isoforms during all stages of development. These changes have, in many instances, proven to be of clinical significance when treatment involves drugs that are substrates, inhibitors or inducers of CYP3A. Investigators and clinicians should consider the impact of ontogeny on CYP3A in both pharmacokinetic study design and data interpretation, as well as when prescribing drugs to children.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System / chemistry
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Isoenzymes / chemistry
  • Isoenzymes / metabolism*
  • Pharmacokinetics*
  • Protein Conformation
  • Structure-Activity Relationship
  • Substrate Specificity


  • Isoenzymes
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System