Pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of conjugated equine estrogens: chemistry and metabolism

Proc Soc Exp Biol Med. 1998 Jan;217(1):6-16. doi: 10.3181/00379727-217-44199.


Conjugated equine estrogens (Premarin), are used extensively for estrogen replacement therapy and prevention of osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease in postmenopausal women. Premarin contains at least 10 estrogens that are the sulfate esters of the ring B saturated estrogens: estrone, 17beta-estradiol, 17alpha-estradiol, and the ring B unsaturated estrogens: equilin, 17beta-dihydroequilin, 17alpha-dihydroequilin, equilenin, 17beta-dihydroequilenin, 17alpha-dihydroequilenin, and delta-8-estrone. Bioassays and estrogen receptor binding studies indicate that all 10 estrogens are biologically active. Moreover, individual components, such as equilin sulfate, delta-8-estrone sulfate, 17beta-dihydroequilin sulfate and estrone sulfate, have potent estrogenic effects. Estrogen sulfates can be absorbed directly from the gastrointestinal tract; however, hydrolysis of the sulfates also occurs in the gastrointestinal tract, and the unconjugated estrogens formed are readily absorbed. After absorption, these estrogens are sulfated rapidly and circulate in this form. The pharmacokinetics of these estrogens indicate that the unconjugated estrogens are cleared from the circulation at a faster rate than their sulfate ester forms. In postmenopausal women, the 17-keto derivatives of these estrogens are metabolized to the more potent 17beta-reduced products. The extent of this activation is nearly 10 times higher with some ring B unsaturated estrogens. The 17beta-reduced metabolites are cleared from the blood at a slower rate than their corresponding 17-keto derivatives. In the human endometrium, equilin is metabolized to 2-hydroxy and 4-hydroxy equilin, with 2-hydroxylation being predominant. In contrast, 2-hydroxy and 4-hydroxy estradiol are formed in equal amounts. Similarly, 16alpha-hydroxylation occurs with both types of estrogens; however, with the ring B saturated estrogens, the 17-keto steroid 16alpha-hydroxy estrone was the major urinary metabolite, whereas with the ring B unsaturated estrogens, the 17beta-reduced steroids, such as 16alpha-hydroxy-17beta-dihydroequilin and 16alpha-hydroxy-17beta-dihydroequilenin, were the major metabolites. This difference in metabolism may be important as it has been suggested that 16alpha-hydroxy estrone (alpha-ketol structure) can form covalent adducts with macromolecules and that it may be oncogenic. These types of interactions will not occur with the 16alpha-hydroxylated-17beta-reduced metabolites of ring B unsaturated estrogens. Since all of the estrogens present in Premarin have estrogenic activity, the pharmacological effects of Premarin are a result of the sum of these individual activities. Therefore, preparations lacking some of these important components may not offer the same degree of beneficial effects as Premarin.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aryl Hydrocarbon Hydroxylases*
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / prevention & control
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP2C8
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP2C9
  • Estrogen Replacement Therapy*
  • Estrogens / chemistry*
  • Estrogens / pharmacokinetics
  • Estrogens / pharmacology
  • Estrogens, Conjugated (USP) / pharmacokinetics*
  • Estrogens, Conjugated (USP) / pharmacology
  • Estrogens, Conjugated (USP) / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • Horses
  • Humans
  • Osteoporosis, Postmenopausal / prevention & control
  • Postmenopause
  • Steroid 16-alpha-Hydroxylase
  • Uterus / drug effects
  • Uterus / physiology


  • Estrogens
  • Estrogens, Conjugated (USP)
  • CYP2C9 protein, human
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP2C9
  • Aryl Hydrocarbon Hydroxylases
  • CYP2C8 protein, human
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP2C8
  • Steroid 16-alpha-Hydroxylase