Drug passage across the cell membrane

Drug passage across the cell membrane


Many drugs need to pass through one or more cell membranes to reach their site of action. A common feature of all cell membranes is a phospholipid bilayer, about 10 nm thick, arranged with the hydrophilic heads on the outside and the lipophilic chains facing inwards. This gives a sandwich effect, with two hydrophilic layers surrounding the central hydrophobic one.

Spanning this bilayer or attached to the outer or inner leaflets are glycoproteins, which may act as ion channels, receptors, intermediate messengers (G-proteins), or enzymes. The cell membrane has been described as a ‘fluid mosaic’ as the positions of individual phosphoglycerides and glycoproteins are by no means fixed (Figure 1.1).

An exception to this is a specialized membrane area such as the neuromuscular junction, where the array of postsynaptic receptors is found opposite a motor nerve ending. The general cell membrane structure is modified in certain tissues to allow more specialized functions. Capillary endothelial cells have fenestrae, which are regions of the endothelial cell where the outer and inner membranes are fused together, with no intervening cytosol.

These make the endothelium of the capillary relatively permeable; fluid, in particular, can pass rapidly through the cell by this route. In the case of the renal glomerular endothelium, gaps or clefts exist between cells to allow the passage of larger molecules as part of filtration. Tight junctions exist between endothelial cells of brain blood vessels, forming the blood-brain barrier (BBB), intestinal mucosa, and renal tubules.

These limit the passage of polar molecules and also prevent the lateral movement of glycoproteins within the cell membrane, which may help to keep specialized glycoproteins at their site of action (e.g. transport glycoproteins on the luminal surface of intestinal mucosa) (Figure 1.2).

Methods of crossing the cell membrane

This is the commonest method for crossing the cell membrane. Drug molecules move down a concentration gradient, from an area of high concentration to one of low concentration, and the process requires no energy to proceed. Many drugs are weak acids or weak bases and can exist in either the unionized or ionized form, depending on the pH.

The unionized form of a drug is lipid-soluble and diffuses easily by dissolution in the lipid bilayer. Thus the rate at which transfer occurs depends on

Representation of the cell membrane structure. The integral proteins embedded in this phospholipid bilayer are G-protein, G-protein-coupled receptors, transport proteins, and ligand-gated ion channels. Additionally, enzymes or voltage-gated ion channels may also be present. the pKa of the drug in question. Factors influencing the rate of diffusion are discussed below.

In addition, there are specialized ion channels in the membrane that allow intermittent passive movement of selected ions down a concentration gradient. When opened, ion channels allow rapid ion flux for a short time (a few milliseconds) down relatively large concentration and electrical gradients, which makes them suitable to propagate either ligand- or voltage-gated action potentials in nerve and muscle membranes.


The acetylcholine (ACh) receptor has five subunits (pentameric) arranged to form a central ion channel that spans the membrane (Figure 1.3). Of the five subunits, two (the α subunits) are identical. The receptor requires the binding of two ACh molecules to open the ion channel, allowing ions to pass at about 107 s−1. If a threshold flux is achieved, depolarization occurs, which is responsible for impulse transmission. The ACh receptor demonstrates selectivity for small cations, but it is by no means specific for Na+. The GABAA receptor is also a pentameric, ligand-gated

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