Dynamic Protonation Dramatically Affects the Membrane Permeability of Drug-like Molecules

J Am Chem Soc. 2019 Aug 28;141(34):13421-13433. doi: 10.1021/jacs.9b04387. Epub 2019 Aug 16.


Permeability (Pm) across biological membranes is of fundamental importance and a key factor in drug absorption, distribution, and development. Although the majority of drugs will be charged at some point during oral delivery, our understanding of membrane permeation by charged species is limited. The canonical model assumes that only neutral molecules partition into and passively permeate across membranes, but there is mounting evidence that these processes are also facile for certain charged species. However, it is unknown whether such ionizable permeants dynamically neutralize at the membrane surface or permeate in their charged form. To probe protonation-coupled permeation in atomic detail, we herein apply continuous constant-pH molecular dynamics along with free energy sampling to study the permeation of a weak base propranolol (PPL), and evaluate the impact of including dynamic protonation on Pm. The simulations reveal that PPL dynamically neutralizes at the lipid-tail interface, which dramatically influences the permeation free energy landscape and explains why the conventional model overestimates the assigned intrinsic permeability. We demonstrate how fixed-charge-state simulations can account for this effect, and propose a revised model that better describes pH-coupled partitioning and permeation. Our results demonstrate how dynamic changes in protonation state may play a critical role in the permeation of ionizable molecules, including pharmaceuticals and drug-like molecules, thus requiring a revision of the standard picture.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Antihypertensive Agents / chemistry
  • Antihypertensive Agents / pharmacokinetics*
  • Cell Membrane Permeability*
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Lipid Bilayers / metabolism*
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation
  • Propranolol / chemistry
  • Propranolol / pharmacokinetics*
  • Protons
  • Thermodynamics


  • Antihypertensive Agents
  • Lipid Bilayers
  • Protons
  • Propranolol