Sulfonylureas rapidly cross phospholipid bilayer membranes by a free-diffusion mechanism

Frits Kamp, Nadeem Kizilbash, Barbara E. Corkey, Per Olof Berggren, James A. Hamilton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Because sulfonylureas directly activate the exocytotic machinery, we were interested in the extent to which these compounds penetrate the β-cell plasma membrane and the underlying molecular mechanism(s). We now provide evidence that sulfonylureas cross phospholipid bilayer membranes rapidly and effectively by a free-diffusion mechanism. Two sulfonylurea compounds investigated by 1H nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, glibenclamide and tolbutamide, were found to incorporate into phospholipid bilayers, with the ionizable sulfonamide exposed to the aqueous interface and its apparent dissociation constant (pKa) increased to ∼7.0. Diffusion of weak amphiphilic acids across membranes is associated with a measurable change in pH. Thus, by using a fluorescence-based pH assay, we could investigate the diffusion of sulfonylurea compounds across phospholipid bilayer membranes. A fluorescent pH indicator pyranin or [2′,7′-bis (2-carboxyethyl)-5(6)-carboxyfluorescein] [BCECF]) was trapped in egg phosphatidylcholine vesicles. Addition of glibenclamide decreased internal pH (pHin), and addition of albumin reversed this drop by 50%. With the same amount of tolbutamide, the decrease in pHin was much smaller, primarily because of the lower partitioning of tolbutamide into phospholipid bilayers. Using similar protocols, we also demonstrated diffusion by the same mechanism across the β-cell plasma membrane. Thus, we now provide a molecular mechanism by which sulfonylureas can penetrate the plasma membrane and reach intracellular sites regulating exocytosis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2526-2531
Number of pages6
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Internal Medicine
  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism


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