The pharmacokinetics of levosalbutamol: what are the clinical implications?

Clin Pharmacokinet. 2001 Jan;40(1):23-40. doi: 10.2165/00003088-200140010-00003.


Salbutamol (albuterol) is a beta2-adrenoceptor agonist used as a bronchodilator for the treatment of asthma and as a uterine relaxant for the suspension of premature labour. Salbutamol has been marketed as a racemic mixture, although beta2-agonist activity resides almost exclusively in the (R)-enantiomer. The enantioselective disposition of salbutamol and the possibility that (S)-salbutamol has adverse effects have led to the development of an enantiomerically pure (R)-salbutamol formulation known as levosalbutamol (levalbuterol). Salbutamol is metabolised almost exclusively by sulphotransferase (SULT) 1A3 to an inactive metabolite. (R)-Salbutamol is metabolised up to 12 times faster than (S)-salbutamol. This leads to relatively higher plasma concentrations of (S)- salbutamol following all routes of administration, but particularly following oral administration because of extensive metabolism by the intestine. Enantiomer concentrations are similar for the first hour following an inhaled dose, reflecting the fact that salbutamol in the lung probably undergoes little metabolism. Subsequently, (S)-salbutamol predominates due to absorption and metabolism of the swallowed portion of the inhaled dose. Following oral or inhaled administration of enantiomerically pure salbutamol, a small amount (6%) is converted to the other enantiomer, probably by acid-catalysed racemisation in the stomach. Tissue binding of salbutamol is not enantioselective and plasma protein binding is relatively low. Both enantiomers are actively excreted into the urine. Compared with healthy individuals, patients with asthma do not have substantially different pharmacokinetics of the salbutamol enantiomers, but they do appear to have less drug delivered to the lung following inhaled administration because of their narrowed airways. Levosalbutamol elicits an equal or slightly larger response than an equivalent dose of the racemic mixture. This is probably due to competitive inhibition between the enantiomers at beta-adrenoceptors. Pharmacokinetic-pharmacodynamic relationships for levosalbutamol show relatively large interindividual variations. Functionally significant genetic polymorphisms have been identified for beta2-adrenoceptors, SULT1A3 and organic action transporters, all of which affect the disposition or action of levosalbutamol. Animal, in vitro and some clinical studies have reported deleterious effects of (S)-salbutamol on smooth muscle contractility or lung function. However, well-designed clinical studies in patients with asthma have failed to find evidence of significant toxicity associated with (S)-salbutamol. The clinical consequences of relatively higher plasma concentrations of (S)-salbutamol following administration of racemate remain unclear, but in the absence of clear evidence of toxicity the clinical superiority of levosalbutamol over racemic salbutamol appears to be small.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Inhalation
  • Administration, Oral
  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists / blood
  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists / chemistry
  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists / pharmacokinetics*
  • Albuterol / blood
  • Albuterol / chemistry
  • Albuterol / pharmacokinetics*
  • Animals
  • Area Under Curve
  • Asthma / drug therapy
  • Asthma / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Receptors, Adrenergic, beta-2 / drug effects
  • Receptors, Adrenergic, beta-2 / genetics
  • Stereoisomerism


  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists
  • Receptors, Adrenergic, beta-2
  • Albuterol