Phase I hydroxylated metabolites of the K2 synthetic cannabinoid JWH-018 retain in vitro and in vivo cannabinoid 1 receptor affinity and activity

PLoS One. 2011;6(7):e21917. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021917. Epub 2011 Jul 6.


Background: K2 products are synthetic cannabinoid-laced, marijuana-like drugs of abuse, use of which is often associated with clinical symptoms atypical of marijuana use, including hypertension, agitation, hallucinations, psychosis, seizures and panic attacks. JWH-018, a prevalent K2 synthetic cannabinoid, is structurally distinct from Δ(9)-THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Since even subtle structural differences can lead to differential metabolism, formation of novel, biologically active metabolites may be responsible for the distinct effects associated with K2 use. The present study proposes that K2's high adverse effect occurrence is due, at least in part, to distinct JWH-018 metabolite activity at the cannabinoid 1 receptor (CB1R).

Methods/principal findings: JWH-018, five potential monohydroxylated metabolites (M1-M5), and one carboxy metabolite (M6) were examined in mouse brain homogenates containing CB1Rs, first for CB1R affinity using a competition binding assay employing the cannabinoid receptor radioligand [(3)H]CP-55,940, and then for CB1R intrinsic efficacy using an [(35)S]GTPγS binding assay. JWH-018 and M1-M5 bound CB1Rs with high affinity, exhibiting K(i) values that were lower than or equivalent to Δ(9)-THC. These molecules also stimulated G-proteins with equal or greater efficacy relative to Δ(9)-THC, a CB1R partial agonist. Most importantly, JWH-018, M2, M3, and M5 produced full CB1R agonist levels of activation. CB1R-mediated activation was demonstrated by blockade with O-2050, a CB1R-selective neutral antagonist. Similar to Δ(9)-THC, JWH-018 and M1 produced a marked depression of locomotor activity and core body temperature in mice that were both blocked by the CB1R-preferring antagonist/inverse agonist AM251.

Conclusions/significance: Unlike metabolites of most drugs, the studied JWH-018 monohydroxylated compounds, but not the carboxy metabolite, retain in vitro and in vivo activity at CB1Rs. These observations, combined with higher CB1R affinity and activity relative to Δ(9)-THC, may contribute to the greater prevalence of adverse effects observed with JWH-018-containing products relative to cannabis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Temperature / drug effects
  • Dronabinol / metabolism
  • Dronabinol / pharmacology
  • Hydroxylation
  • Indoles / chemistry
  • Indoles / metabolism*
  • Metabolic Detoxication, Phase I*
  • Mice
  • Motor Activity / drug effects
  • Naphthalenes / chemistry
  • Naphthalenes / metabolism*
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1 / agonists
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1 / metabolism*


  • Indoles
  • Naphthalenes
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1
  • Dronabinol
  • 1-pentyl-3-(1-naphthoyl)indole