Altered metabolism of synthetic cannabinoid JWH-018 by human cytochrome P450 2C9 and variants

Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2018 Apr 6;498(3):597-602. doi: 10.1016/j.bbrc.2018.03.028. Epub 2018 Mar 10.


Synthetic cannabinoids (SCBs), synonymous with 'K2', 'Spice' or 'synthetic marijuana', are psychoactive drugs of abuse that frequently result in clinical effects and toxicity more severe than those classically associated with Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol such as extreme agitation, hallucinations, supraventricular tachycardia, syncope, and seizures. JWH-018 is one of the earliest compounds identified in various SCB products, and our laboratory previously demonstrated that JWH-018 undergoes extensive metabolism by cytochromes P450 (P450), binds to, and activates cannabinoid receptors (CBRs). The major enzyme involved in the metabolism of JWH-018 is CYP2C9, a highly polymorphic enzyme found largely in the intestines and liver, with *1 being designated as the wild type, and *2 and *3 as the two most common variants. Three different major products have been identified in human urine and plasma: JWH-018 (ω)-OH, JWH-018 (ω-1)-OH(R), and JWH-018 (ω-1)-OH(S). The (ω-1)-OH metabolite of JWH-018 is a chiral molecule, and is thus designated as either (ω-1)-OH(R) or (ω-1)-OH(S). Here, in vitro enzyme kinetic assays performed with human recombinant CYP2C9 variants (*1, *2, and *3) revealed that oxidative metabolism by CYP2C9*3 resulted in significantly less formation of (ω)-OH and (ω-1)-OH metabolites. Surprisingly, CYP2C9*2 was roughly 3.6-fold more efficient as the CYP2C9*1 enzyme based on Vmax/Km, increasing the rate of JWH-018 metabolism and allowed for a much more rapid elimination. These results suggest that genetic polymorphisms of P450 enzymes result in the production of varying levels of biologically active JWH-018 metabolites in some individuals, offering a mechanistic explanation for the diverse clinical toxicity often observed following JWH-018 abuse.

Keywords: CYP2C9 variants; CYP450; Enzyme kinetics; Synthetic cannabinoids; Toxicity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP2C9 / genetics
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP2C9 / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Illicit Drugs / metabolism*
  • Indoles / metabolism*
  • Kinetics
  • Metabolic Networks and Pathways
  • Naphthalenes / metabolism*
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Recombinant Proteins / genetics
  • Recombinant Proteins / metabolism
  • Substance-Related Disorders / genetics
  • Substance-Related Disorders / metabolism


  • Illicit Drugs
  • Indoles
  • Naphthalenes
  • Recombinant Proteins
  • CYP2C9 protein, human
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP2C9
  • 1-pentyl-3-(1-naphthoyl)indole