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Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2008 Dec;66(6):781-91. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2125.2008.03286.x.

Oral diacetylmorphine (heroin) yields greater morphine bioavailability than oral morphine: bioavailability related to dosage and prior opioid exposure.

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Blood Transfusion Service SRC Ltd Bern, Bern, Switzerland.



In the Swiss heroin substitution trials, patients are treated with self-administered diacetylmorphine (heroin). Intravenous administration is not possible in patients that have venosclerosis. Earlier studies have demonstrated that oral diacetylmorphine may be used, although it is completely converted to morphine presystemically. Morphine bioavailability after high-dose oral diacetylmorphine is considerably higher than would be predicted from low-dose trials. The aim was to investigate whether the unexpectedly high bioavailability is due to a difference in the drug examined, and whether it depends on previous exposure or on dose.


Opioid-naive healthy volunteers and dependent patients from the Swiss heroin trials (n = 8 per group) received low doses of intravenous and oral deuterium-labelled morphine and diacetylmorphine, respectively. Patients also received a high oral diacetylmorphine dose.


The maximum plasma concentration (C(max)) of morphine was twofold higher after oral diacetylmorphine than after morphine administration in both groups. However, morphine bioavailability was considerably higher in chronic users [diacetylmorphine 45.6% (95% confidence interval 40.0, 51.3), morphine 37.2% (30.1, 44.3)] than in naive subjects [diacetylmorphine 22.9% (16.4, 29.4), morphine 23.9% (16.5, 31.2)] after low oral doses (48.5 micromol) of either diacetylmorphine or morphine. Morphine clearance was similar in both groups. Moreover, oral absorption of morphine from diacetylmorphine was found to be dose dependent, with bioavailability reaching 64.2% (55.3, 73.1) for high diacetylmorphine doses (1601 micromol).


Oral absorption of opioids is substance-, dose- and patient collective-dependent, suggesting that there may be a saturation of first-pass processes, the exact mechanism of which is not yet understood.

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