Nonlinear pharmacokinetics: clinical Implications

Clin Pharmacokinet. 1991 Jun;20(6):429-46. doi: 10.2165/00003088-199120060-00001.


Nonlinear pharmacokinetics (in other words, time or dose dependences in pharmacokinetic parameters) can arise from factors associated with absorption, first-pass metabolism, binding, excretion and biotransformation. Nonlinearities in absorption and bioavailability can cause increases in drug concentrations that are disproportionately high or low relative to the change in dose. One of the more important sources of nonlinearity is the partial saturation of presystemic metabolism exhibited by such drugs as verapamil, propranolol and hydralazine. In such cases, circulating drug concentrations are sensitive not only to dose size but also to rate of absorption: slower absorption may decrease the overall systemic availability. The binding of drugs to plasma constituents, blood cells and extravascular tissue may exhibit concentration dependence. This can cause pharmacokinetic parameters based on total blood or serum drug concentrations to be concentration-dependent. Often, in these cases, parameters based on free drug concentration appear linear. An important consideration in regard to concentration-dependent serum binding is the difficulty in relating total concentration to a usual therapeutic range if free concentration is a better indicator of drug effect. Measurement of free concentration is needed in these cases, particularly if the intersubject variability in binding is high. An example of this behaviour is valproic acid. Partial saturation of elimination pathways can result in the well known behaviour typical of Michaelis-Menten pharmacokinetics. Small changes in dosing rate can make much larger differences in steady-state concentration. The time to achieve a given fraction of steady-state becomes longer as the dosing rate approaches the maximum elimination rate. Alcohol and phenytoin are examples of drugs that exhibit such behaviour. The sensitivity of steady-state concentration and cumulation rate to changes in dosing rate are both influenced by the magnitude of parallel first-order elimination pathways: even a first-order pathway that is only 1 to 2% of maximum clearance (which occurs at very low concentration) can be an important determinant of steady-state concentration and cumulation rate when concentrations are high. Theophylline and salicylate have significant parallel first-order elimination pathways as well as saturable pathways. Autoinduction causes an increase in clearance with long term administration. In some cases, dosage adjustment must be made to compensate for the increase, and the possibility that the degree of induction may be dose- or concentration-dependent must be kept in mind. Carbamazepine is a major example of autoinduction. It is fortunate that only a few of the many hundreds of drugs in use exhibit nonlinear behaviour that leads to clinical implications.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Pharmacokinetics*