ABC transporters and the blood-brain barrier

Curr Pharm Des. 2004;10(12):1295-312. doi: 10.2174/1381612043384844.


The blood-brain barrier (BBB) and the blood-cerebrospinal fluid barrier (BCSFB) form a very effective barrier to the free diffusion of many polar solutes into the brain. Many metabolites that are polar have their brain entry facilitated by specific inwardly-directed transport mechanisms. In general the more lipid soluble a molecule or drug is, the more readily it will tend to partition into brain tissue. However, a very significant number of lipid soluble molecules, among them many useful therapeutic drugs have lower brain permeability than would be predicted from a determination of their lipid solubility. These molecules are substrates for the ABC efflux transporters which are present in the BBB and BCSB and the activity of these transporters very efficiently removes the drug from the CNS, thus limiting brain uptake. P-glycoprotein (Pgp) was the first of these ABC transporters to be described, followed by the multidrug resistance-associated proteins (MRP) and more recently breast cancer resistance protein (BCRP). All are expressed in the BBB and BCSFB and combine to reduce the brain penetration of many drugs. This phenomenon of "multidrug resistance" is a major hurdle when it comes to the delivery of therapeutics to the brain, not to mention the problem of cancer chemotherapy in general. Therefore, the development of strategies for bypassing the influence of these ABC transporters and for the design of effective drugs that are not substrates and the development of inhibitors for the ABC transporters becomes a high imperative for the pharmaceutical industry.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters / chemistry
  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters / genetics
  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters / metabolism
  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / metabolism
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / physiology*
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Chemistry / genetics
  • Brain Chemistry / physiology
  • Humans


  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters