Liposomal irinotecan (Onivyde): Exemplifying the benefits of nanotherapeutic drugs

Cancer Sci. 2022 Jul;113(7):2224-2231. doi: 10.1111/cas.15377. Epub 2022 May 26.


Irinotecan is a topoisomerase inhibitor, widely used in treatment of malignancies including pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) as part of the FOLFIRINOX regimen prescribed as a first-line treatment in several countries. However, irinotecan has not been successfully introduced as a second-line treatment for pancreatic cancer and few randomized clinical studies have evaluated its added value. Efficacy of liposomal irinotecan (nal-IRI) combined with 5-fluorouracil and leucovorin (5-FU/LV) was reported in the phase III NAPOLI-1 trial in metastatic PDAC following failure of gemcitabine-based therapy. Several features of nal-IRI pharmacokinetics (PK) could result in better outcomes versus nonliposomal irinotecan. Irinotecan is a prodrug that is converted to active SN-38 by carboxylesterase enzymes and inactivated by cytochrome P450 3A4/3A5. SN-38 is inactivated by UGT1A1 enzymes. Individual variations in their expression and activity could influence enhanced localized irinotecan activity and toxicity. Liposomal irinotecan exploits the enhanced permeability and retention effect in cancer, accumulating in tumor tissues. Liposomal irinotecan also has a longer half-life and higher area under the concentration-time curve (0-∞) than nonliposomal irinotecan, as the liposomal formulation protects cargo from premature metabolism in the plasma. This results in irinotecan activation in tumor tissue, leading to enhanced cytotoxicity. Importantly, despite the longer exposure, overall toxicity for nal-IRI is no worse than nonliposomal irinotecan. Liposomal irinotecan exemplifies how liposomal encapsulation of a chemotherapeutic agent can alter its PK properties, improving clinical outcomes for patients. Liposomal irinotecan is currently under investigation in other malignancies including biliary tract cancer (amongst other gastrointestinal cancers), brain tumors, and small-cell lung cancer.

Keywords: carcinoma; chemotherapy; drug delivery system; irinotecan; liposome; pancreatic ductal.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Combined Chemotherapy Protocols
  • Clinical Trials, Phase III as Topic
  • Fluorouracil
  • Humans
  • Irinotecan* / therapeutic use
  • Leucovorin / therapeutic use
  • Liposomes
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic


  • Liposomes
  • Irinotecan
  • Leucovorin
  • Fluorouracil

Supplementary concepts

  • Pancreatic Carcinoma