Review Article

European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology

, Volume 65, Issue 2, pp 121-139

First online:

Role of active metabolites in the use of opioids

  • Janet K. CollerAffiliated withDiscipline of Pharmacology, School of Medical Sciences, University of Adelaide
  • , Lona L. ChristrupAffiliated withDepartment of Pharmacology and Pharmacotherapy, Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Copenhagen
  • , Andrew A. SomogyiAffiliated withDiscipline of Pharmacology, School of Medical Sciences, University of Adelaide Email author 

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The opioid class of drugs, a large group, is mainly used for the treatment of acute and chronic persistent pain. All are eliminated from the body via metabolism involving principally CYP3A4 and the highly polymorphic CYP2D6, which markedly affects the drug’s function, and by conjugation reactions mainly by UGT2B7. In many cases, the resultant metabolites have the same pharmacological activity as the parent opioid; however in many cases, plasma metabolite concentrations are too low to make a meaningful contribution to the overall clinical effects of the parent drug. These metabolites are invariably more water soluble and require renal clearance as an important overall elimination pathway. Such metabolites have the potential to accumulate in the elderly and in those with declining renal function with resultant accumulation to a much greater extent than the parent opioid. The best known example is the accumulation of morphine-6-glucuronide from morphine. Some opioids have active metabolites but at different target sites. These are norpethidine, a neurotoxic agent, and nordextropropoxyphene, a cardiotoxic agent. Clinicians need to be aware that many opioids have active metabolites that will become therapeutically important, for example in cases of altered pathology, drug interactions and genetic polymorphisms of drug-metabolizing enzymes. Thus, dose individualisation and the avoidance of adverse effects of opioids due to the accumulation of active metabolites or lack of formation of active metabolites are important considerations when opioids are used.


Opioids Metabolites Genetic polymorphisms Mu opioid receptor