Norbuprenorphine is a major metabolite of buprenorphine and potent agonist of μ, δ, and κ opioid receptors. Compared with buprenorphine, norbuprenorphine causes minimal antinociception but greater respiratory depression. It is unknown whether the limited antinociception is caused by low efficacy or limited brain exposure. Norbuprenorphine is an in vitro substrate of the efflux transporter P-glycoprotein (Mdr1), but the role of P-glycoprotein in norbuprenorphine transport in vivo is unknown. This investigation tested the hypothesis that limited norbuprenorphine antinociception results from P-glycoprotein-mediated efflux and limited brain access. Human P-glycoprotein-mediated transport in vitro of buprenorphine, norbuprenorphine, and their respective glucuronide conjugates was assessed by using transfected cells. P-glycoprotein-mediated norbuprenorphine transport and consequences in vivo were assessed by using mdr1a(+/+) and mdr1a(-/-) mice. Antinociception was determined by hotwater tail-flick assay, and respiratory effects were determined by unrestrained whole-body plethysmography. Brain and plasma norbuprenorphine and norbuprenorphine-3-glucuronide were quantified by mass spectrometry. In vitro, the net P-glycoprotein-mediated efflux ratio for norbuprenorphine was nine, indicating significant efflux. In contrast, the efflux ratio for buprenorphine and the two glucuronide conjugates was unity, indicating absent transport. The norbuprenorphine brain/plasma concentration ratio was significantly greater in mdr1a(-/-) than mdr1a(+/+) mice. The magnitude and duration of norbuprenorphine antinociception were significantly increased in mdr1a(-/-) compared with mdr1a(+/+) mice, whereas the reduction in respiratory rate was similar. Results show that norbuprenorphine is an in vitro and in vivo substrate of P-glycoprotein. P-glycoprotein-mediated efflux influences brain access and antinociceptive, but not the respiratory, effects of norbuprenorphine.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-61
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Oct 2012


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