Caco-2 cell permeability assays to measure drug absorption

Expert Opin Drug Metab Toxicol. 2005 Aug;1(2):175-85. doi: 10.1517/17425255.1.2.175.


Caco-2 cells are a human colon epithelial cancer cell line used as a model of human intestinal absorption of drugs and other compounds. When cultured as a monolayer, Caco-2 cells differentiate to form tight junctions between cells to serve as a model of paracellular movement of compounds across the monolayer. In addition, Caco-2 cells express transporter proteins, efflux proteins, and Phase II conjugation enzymes to model a variety of transcellular pathways as well as metabolic transformation of test substances. In many respects, the Caco-2 cell monolayer mimics the human intestinal epithelium. One of the functional differences between normal cells and Caco-2 cells is the lack of expression of the cytochrome P450 isozymes and in particular, CYP3A4, which is normally expressed at high levels in the intestine. However, Caco-2 cells may be induced to express higher levels of CYP3A4 by treatment with vitamin D3. Caco-2 cell monolayers are usually cultured on semipermeable plastic supports that may be fitted into the wells of multi-well culture plates. Test compounds are then added to either the apical or basolateral sides of the monolayer. After incubation for various lengths of time, aliquots of the buffer in opposite chambers are removed for the determination of the concentration of test compounds and the computation of the rates of permeability for each compound (called the apparent permeability coefficients). Although radiolabelled compounds were used in the original Caco-2 cells monolayer assays, radiolabelled compounds have been replaced in most laboratories by the use of liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) and LC-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS-MS). Mass spectrometry not only eliminates the need for radiolabelled compounds, but permits the simultaneous measurement of multiple compounds. The measurement of multiple compounds per assay reduces the number of incubations that need to be carried out, thereby increasing the throughput of the experiments. Furthermore, LC-MS and LC-MS-MS add another dimension to Caco-2 assays by facilitating the investigation of the metabolism of compounds by Caco-2 cells.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Absorption
  • Caco-2 Cells
  • Cell Membrane Permeability / drug effects*
  • Drug Design*
  • Humans
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations / metabolism
  • Technology, Pharmaceutical / methods
  • Technology, Pharmaceutical / trends


  • Pharmaceutical Preparations