Minimal Physiologically Based Pharmacokinetic Model of Intravenously and Orally Administered Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol in Healthy Volunteers

Eur J Drug Metab Pharmacokinet. 2019 Oct;44(5):691-711. doi: 10.1007/s13318-019-00559-7.


Background and objectives: Lack of information on the pharmacokinetics of the active moiety of Cannabis or the metabolites of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) does not seem to be discouraging medical or recreational use. Cytochrome P450 (CYP) 2C9, the primary enzyme responsible for THC metabolism, has two single nucleotide polymorphisms-Arg144Cys (*2) and Ile359Leu (*3). In the Caucasian population, allelic frequency is between 0.08 and 0.14 for CYP2C9*2 and between 0.04 and 0.16 for CYP2C9*3. In vitro data suggest that metabolic capacity for the variants CYP2C9*2 and CYP2C9*3 is about one-third compared to wild-type CYP2C9. Previous work has suggested exposure to the terminal metabolite is genetically determined. We therefore sought to characterize the pharmacokinetics of THC and its major metabolites 11-hydroxy-delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC-OH) and 11-nor-9-carboxy-delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC-COOH) in healthy volunteers with known CYP2C9 status by non-compartmental analysis (NCA), compartmental modeling (CM) and minimal physiologically based pharmacokinetic (mPBPK) modeling.

Methods: Blood samples drawn for THC, THC-OH and THC-COOH after a single intravenous (IV) bolus of 0.1 mg/kg (0.32 μM/kg) THC were analyzed using a validated LC-MS/MS method. NCA generated initial estimates and CM and the mPBPK model were then fit to plasma concentration data using non-linear mixed-effects modeling. Blood samples from orally dosed (10, 25 and 50 mg) THC brownies were added to validate the model.

Results: THC can be described as a high hepatic extraction ratio drug with blood flow-dependent metabolism not restricted by protein binding. THC hepatic clearance is dependent on the CYP2C9 genetic variant in the population. High extraction drugs display route-dependent metabolism. When administered via the IV or inhalation routes, induction or inhibition of CYP2C9 should be non-contributory as the elimination of THC is dependent only on liver blood flow. THC-OH is also a high extraction ratio drug, but its hepatic clearance is significantly impacted by the hepatic diffusional barrier that impedes its access to hepatic CYP2C9. THC-COOH is glucuronidated and renally cleared; subjects homozygous for CYP2C9*3 have reduced exposure to this metabolite as a result of the polymorphism reducing THC production, the hepatic diffusional barrier impeding egress from the hepatocyte, and increased renal clearance.

Conclusion: It has recently been reported that the terminal metabolite THC-COOH is active, implying the exposure difference in individuals homozygous for CYP2C9*3 may become therapeutically relevant. Defining the metabolism of THC in humans is important, as it is increasingly being used as a drug to treat various diseases and its recreational use is also rising. We have used NCA, CM, and mPBPK modeling of THC and its metabolites to partially disentangle the complexity of cannabis disposition in humans.

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Intravenous
  • Administration, Oral
  • Adult
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP2C9
  • Dronabinol / administration & dosage*
  • Dronabinol / analogs & derivatives
  • Dronabinol / pharmacokinetics*
  • Female
  • Gene Frequency / genetics
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Hepatocytes / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Male
  • Young Adult


  • 11-hydroxy-delta(9)-tetrahydrocannabinol
  • Dronabinol
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP2C9