The ABCs of drug transport in intestine and liver: efflux proteins limiting drug absorption and bioavailability

Eur J Pharm Sci. 2004 Jan;21(1):25-51. doi: 10.1016/j.ejps.2003.07.003.


Many orally administered drugs must overcome several barriers before reaching their target site. The first major obstacle to cross is the intestinal epithelium. Although lipophilic compounds may readily diffuse across the apical plasma membrane, their subsequent passage across the basolateral membrane and into blood is by no means guaranteed. Efflux proteins located at the apical membrane, which include P-glycoprotein (Pgp; MDR1) and MRP2, may drive compounds from inside the cell back into the intestinal lumen, preventing their absorption into blood. Drugs may also be modified by intracellular phase I and phase II metabolising enzymes. This process may not only render the drug ineffective, but it may also produce metabolites that are themselves substrates for Pgp and/or MRP2. Drugs that reach the blood are then passed to the liver, where they are subject to further metabolism and biliary excretion, often by a similar system of ATP-binding cassette (ABC) transporters and enzymes to that present in the intestine. Thus a synergistic relationship exists between intestinal drug metabolising enzymes and apical efflux transporters, a partnership that proves to be a critical determinant of oral bioavailability. The effectiveness of this system is optimised through dynamic regulation of transporter and enzyme expression; tissues have a remarkable capacity to regulate the amounts of protein both at transcriptional and post-transcriptional levels in order to maintain homeostasis. This review addresses the progress to date on what is known about the role and regulation of drug efflux mechanisms in the intestine and liver.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters / metabolism
  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters / pharmacokinetics*
  • Animals
  • Biological Availability
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Absorption / physiology*
  • Liver / metabolism*
  • Membrane Transport Proteins / metabolism*
  • Membrane Transport Proteins / pharmacokinetics


  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters
  • Membrane Transport Proteins