Noncovalent interactions of drugs with immune receptors may mediate drug-induced hypersensitivity reactions

AAPS J. 2006 Mar 17;8(1):E160-5. doi: 10.1208/aapsj080119.


Drug-induced hypersensitivity reactions are instructive examples of immune reactions against low molecular weight compounds. Classically, such reactions have been explained by the hapten concept, according to which the small antigen covalently modifies an endogenous protein; recent studies show strong associations of several HLA molecules with hypersensitivity. In recent years, however, evidence has become stronger that not all drugs need to bind covalently to the major histocompatibility complex (MHC)-peptide complex in order to trigger an immune response. Rather, some drugs may bind reversibly to the MHC or possibly to the T-cell receptor (TCR), eliciting immune reactions akin to the pharmacological activation of other receptors. While the exact mechanism is still a matter of debate, noncovalent drug presentation clearly leads to the activation of drug-specific T cells. In some patients with hypersensitivity, such a response may occur within hours of even the first exposure to the drug. Thus, the reaction to the drug may not be the result of a classical, primary response but rather be mediated by existing, preactivated T cells that display cross-reactivity for the drug and have additional (peptide) specificity as well. In this way, certain drugs may circumvent the checkpoints for immune activation imposed by the classical antigen processing and presentation mechanisms, which may help to explain the idiosyncratic nature of many drug hypersensitivity reactions.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Drug Hypersensitivity / immunology
  • Drug Hypersensitivity / metabolism*
  • Drug-Related Side Effects and Adverse Reactions
  • Humans
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Immunologic / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Immunologic / physiology


  • Pharmaceutical Preparations
  • Receptors, Immunologic