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Ann Pharmacother. 2007 Jun;41(6):984-93. Epub 2007 May 15.

Methylnaltrexone mechanisms of action and effects on opioid bowel dysfunction and other opioid adverse effects.

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Department of Anesthesia & Critical Care, Pritzker School of Medicine, The University of Chicago, 5841 S. Maryland Ave., MC 4028, Chicago, IL 60637, USA.



To review the mechanisms of action of methylnaltrexone and its effects on opioid bowel dysfunction, as well as its effects on other opioid-induced adverse effects (ADEs), and its potential roles in clinical practice.


A literature search using the MEDLINE and Cochrane Collaboration databases for articles published between 1966 and March 2007 was performed. Additional data sources were obtained from manual searches of recent journal articles, book chapters, and monographs. An updated literature search showed no additional publications.


Abstracts and original preclinical and clinical research reports published in the English language were identified for review. Review articles, commentaries, and news reports of this compound were excluded. Literature related to opioids, opioid receptors, opioid antagonists, methylnaltrexone, opioid-induced bowel dysfunction, constipation, nausea, and vomiting was evaluated and selected based on consideration of the support shown for the proof of concept, mechanistic findings, and timeliness. Fifty-eight original articles from preclinical studies and clinical trials using methylnaltrexone were identified. Pharmacologic action, benefits, and ADEs of methylnaltrexone were reviewed, with a focus on its effects on bowel dysfunction after opioids. Emphases were placed on its receptor binding activities and therapeutically relevant sites of action (peripheral vs central), in which peripheral opioid receptors in the body contribute to physiological and drug-induced effects.


Morphine and related opioids are associated with a number of limiting ADEs, including opioid-induced bowel dysfunction. Methylnaltrexone, a quaternary derivative of naltrexone, blocks peripheral effects of opioids while sparing central analgesic effects. It is currently under late-stage clinical investigation for the treatment of opioid-induced constipation in patients with advanced illness. Reported results showed the drug to be generally well-tolerated. The rapid reversal of constipation is very encouraging. Hastening postoperative discharge may also be possible.


Methylnaltrexone has the potential to prevent or treat opioid-induced peripherally mediated ADEs on bowel dysfunction without interfering with central analgesia. The study of methylnaltrexone leads to a greater understanding of the mechanisms of action of opioid pharmacology.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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