[Esters and stereoisomers]

Anaesthesist. 1997 Apr;46(4):282-6. doi: 10.1007/s001010050402.
[Article in German]


This review discusses concepts of isomers, stereoisomers, chirality, and enantiomers as applied to drugs used in anaesthesia. The inhalational anaesthetics enflurane and isoflurane are examples of stereoisomers. A chiral centre is formed when a carbon or quaternary nitrogen atom is connected to four different atoms. A molecule with one chiral centre is then present in one of two possible configurations termed enantiomers. A racemate is a mixture of both enantiomers in equal proportions. Many of the drugs used in anaesthesia are racemic mixtures (the inhalation anaesthetics, local anaesthetics, ketamine, and others). The shape of the atracurium molecule is comparable to that of a dumb-bell:the two isoquinoline groups representing the two bulky ends connected by an aliphatic chain. In each isoquinoline group there are two chiral centres, one formed by a carbon and the other by a quaternary nitrogen atom. From a geometric point of view, the connections from the carbon atom to a substituted benzene ring and from the quaternary nitrogen to the aliphatic chain may point in the same direction (cis configuration) or in opposite directions (trans configuration). The two isoquinoline groups in atracurium are paired in three geometric configurations: cis-cis, trans-trans, or cis-trans. However, the two chiral centres allow each isoquinoline group to exist in one of four stereoisometric configurations. In the symmetrical atracurium molecule, the number of possible stereoisomers is limited to ten. Among these, 1 R-cis, 1'R-cis atracurium was isolated and its pharmacologic properties studied. This isomer, named cis-atracurium, offers clinical advantages over the atracurium mixture, principally due to the lack of histamine-releasing propensity and the higher neuromuscular blocking potency. The ester groups appear in one of two steric configurations true and reverse esters. In the true esters, oxygen is positioned between the nitrogen atom and the carbonyl group, while in the reverse esters in its positioned on the other side of the carbonyl group. True esters, suxamethonium and mivacurium, are hydrolysed by the enzyme plasma cholinesterase (butyrylcholinesterase), albeit at different rates. The more rapid degradation of suxamethonium is responsible for its fast onset and short duration of action in comparison with mivacurium. The reverse esters, atracurium, cisatracurium, and remifentanil, are hydrolysed by nonspecific esterases in plasma (carboxyesterases). Remifentanil is hydrolysed rapidly; the degradation leads to its inactivation and short duration of action. Cis-atracurium is preferentially degraded and inactivated by a process known as Hofmann elimination. In a second step, one of the degradation products, the monoester acrylate, is hydrolysed by a nonspecific esterase.

Publication types

  • English Abstract
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anesthetics* / chemistry
  • Anesthetics* / pharmacology
  • Anesthetics, Inhalation
  • Esters* / chemistry
  • Esters* / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Stereoisomerism


  • Anesthetics
  • Anesthetics, Inhalation
  • Esters