The pharmacology of sulfonylureas

Am J Med. 1981 Feb;70(2):361-72. doi: 10.1016/0002-9343(81)90773-7.


In this report we review the pharmacology of the hypoglycemic sulfonylurea drugs. The early work with sulfonylureas is briefly described. The pharmacokinetics of first-generation sulfonylureas, such as tolbutamide, chlorpropamide, acetohexamide and tolazamide, are described. The first-generation sulfonylureas are compared with second-generation sulfonylureas such as glyburide, glipizide and glibornuride. These latter drugs have a more nonpolar or lipophilic side chain, which results in a marked increase in their hypoglycemic potency. Because of the low serum concentration required for effective therapy, it is necessary to measure the serum concentration of second-generation sulfonylureas by gas-liquid chromatography or radioimmunoassay. The second-generation sulfonylureas do not produce facial flushing after ethanol ingestion (Antabuse effect) and are not uricosuric. Glyburide (but not glipizide or glibornuride) has been evaluated for its effect on water excretion. Glyburide not only does not increase water retention but in fact also increases free water clearance. The second-generation sulfonylureas bind to human serum albumin by nonionic forces in contrast with tolbutamide and chlorpropamide which bind by ionic forces. Thus, anionic drugs such as phenylbutazone, warfarin and salicylate do not displace glyburide from albumin as they displace tolbutamide and chlorpropamide. Therefore, it may be safer to administer the second-generation sulfonylureas than the more polar sulfonylureas when concurrent administration of other pharmacologic agents is likely. The sulfonylurea drugs lower plasma glucose concentrations in diabetic patients by stimulating insulin secretion and by potentiating the biologic effect of the insulin on such tissues as skeletal muscle, fat and liver. The mechanism of the latter so-called extra-pancreatic effect may be activated by increasing the deficient numbers of insulin receptors on muscle, fat or liver cells.

MeSH terms

  • Acetohexamide / metabolism
  • Blood Glucose / analysis
  • Chlorpropamide / metabolism
  • Diabetes Mellitus / blood
  • Diabetes Mellitus / drug therapy
  • Glyburide / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Insulin / blood
  • Sulfonylurea Compounds / metabolism*
  • Sulfonylurea Compounds / pharmacology
  • Sulfonylurea Compounds / therapeutic use
  • Tolazamide / metabolism
  • Tolbutamide / metabolism


  • Blood Glucose
  • Insulin
  • Sulfonylurea Compounds
  • Tolbutamide
  • Tolazamide
  • Acetohexamide
  • Glyburide
  • Chlorpropamide