Objective: To investigate the serum concentrations of morphine, morphine-3-glucuronide (M3G) and morphine-6-glucuronide (M6G) and the relationships between serum concentrations and clinical effects associated with start of morphine treatment in cancer patients.
Methods: Forty patients with malignant disease and intolerable pain on weak opioids (codeine/dextropropoxyphen) were included. After a wash-out period, titration with immediate-release (IR) morphine was started. When a stable dose was achieved, the morphine treatment was changed to slow-release (SR) morphine in equivalent daily dosages. Clinical data and serum concentrations of morphine, M3G and M6G were obtained at the end of the IR and SR morphine treatment periods.
Results: The mean trough serum morphine concentration associated with pain relief was 66 nmol/l. The corresponding mean concentrations of M6G and M3G were 257 nmol/l and 1943 nmol/l, respectively. Morphine serum trough concentrations showed a 33-fold variation. Seventy percent of the variation was predicted in a model including age, daily morphine dose and M6G/morphine ratio as independent variables. No associations were observed between side effects and serum concentrations of morphine and its metabolites.
Conclusion: In this study, a mean serum trough morphine concentration of 66 nmol/l was associated with satisfactory pain relief when disease progression required an increase in intensity of pain therapy from step II to step III in the World Health Organization pain ladder. An increased ratio of M6G to morphine serum concentrations predicted lower effective serum morphine concentrations at the time of satisfactory pain relief. This observation supports that M6G contributes to the pain control produced by oral morphine in patients with pain caused by malignant disease.