Role of P-glycoprotein in pharmacokinetics: clinical implications

Clin Pharmacokinet. 2003;42(1):59-98. doi: 10.2165/00003088-200342010-00003.


P-glycoprotein, the most extensively studied ATP-binding cassette (ABC) transporter, functions as a biological barrier by extruding toxins and xenobiotics out of cells. In vitro and in vivo studies have demonstrated that P-glycoprotein plays a significant role in drug absorption and disposition. Because of its localisation, P-glycoprotein appears to have a greater impact on limiting cellular uptake of drugs from blood circulation into brain and from intestinal lumen into epithelial cells than on enhancing the excretion of drugs out of hepatocytes and renal tubules into the adjacent luminal space. However, the relative contribution of intestinal P-glycoprotein to overall drug absorption is unlikely to be quantitatively important unless a very small oral dose is given, or the dissolution and diffusion rates of the drug are very slow. This is because P-glycoprotein transport activity becomes saturated by high concentrations of drug in the intestinal lumen. Because of its importance in pharmacokinetics, P-glycoprotein transport screening has been incorporated into the drug discovery process, aided by the availability of transgenic mdr knockout mice and in vitro cell systems. When applying in vitro and in vivo screening models to study P-glycoprotein function, there are two fundamental questions: (i) can in vitro data be accurately extrapolated to the in vivo situation; and (ii) can animal data be directly scaled up to humans? Current information from our laboratory suggests that in vivo P-glycoprotein activity for a given drug can be extrapolated reasonably well from in vitro data. On the other hand, there are significant species differences in P-glycoprotein transport activity between humans and animals, and the species differences appear to be substrate-dependent. Inhibition and induction of P-glycoprotein have been reported as the causes of drug-drug interactions. The potential risk of P-glycoprotein-mediated drug interactions may be greatly underestimated if only plasma concentration is monitored. From animal studies, it is clear that P-glycoprotein inhibition always has a much greater impact on tissue distribution, particularly with regard to the brain, than on plasma concentrations. Therefore, the potential risk of P-glycoprotein-mediated drug interactions should be assessed carefully. Because of overlapping substrate specificity between cytochrome P450 (CYP) 3A4 and P-glycoprotein, and because of similarities in P-glycoprotein and CYP3A4 inhibitors and inducers, many drug interactions involve both P-glycoprotein and CYP3A4. Unless the relative contribution of P-glycoprotein and CYP3A4 to drug interactions can be quantitatively estimated, care should be taken when exploring the underlying mechanism of such interactions.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily B, Member 1 / biosynthesis
  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily B, Member 1 / genetics
  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily B, Member 1 / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Biological Transport, Active
  • Biotransformation
  • Drug Interactions
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Absorption
  • Pharmacokinetics*
  • Species Specificity
  • Tissue Distribution


  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily B, Member 1