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Mechanism of Action

Fentanyl is a pure opioid agonist whose principal therapeutic action is analgesia. Other members of the class known as opioid agonists include substances such as morphine, oxycodone, hydromorphone, codeine, and hydrocodone.


Pharmacological effects of opioid agonists include anxiolysis, euphoria, feelings of relaxation, respiratory depression, constipation, miosis, cough suppression, and analgesia. Like all pure opioid agonist analgesics, with increasing doses there is increasing analgesia, unlike with mixed agonist/antagonists or non-opioid analgesics, where there is a limit to the analgesic effect with increasing doses. With pure opioid agonist analgesics, there is no defined maximum dose; the ceiling to analgesic effectiveness is imposed only by side effects, the more serious of which may include somnolence and respiratory depression.


The analgesic effects of fentanyl are related to the blood level of the drug, if proper allowance is made for the delay into and out of the CNS (a process with a 3-to 5-minute half-life).

In general, the effective concentration and the concentration at which toxicity occurs increase with increasing tolerance with any and all opioids. The rate of development of tolerance varies widely among individuals. As a result, the dose of ACTIQ should be individually titrated to achieve the desired effect [see DOSAGE AND ADMINISTRATION].

Central Nervous System

The precise mechanism of the analgesic action is unknown although fentanyl is known to be a mu-opioid receptor agonist. Specific CNS opioid receptors for endogenous compounds with opioid-like activity have been identified throughout the brain and spinal cord and play a role in the analgesic effects of this drug.

Fentanyl produces respiratory depression by direct action on brain stem respiratory centers. The respiratory depression involves both a reduction in the responsiveness of the brain stem to increases in carbon dioxide and to electrical stimulation.

Fentanyl depresses the cough reflex by direct effect on the cough center in the medulla. Antitussive effects may occur with doses lower than those usually required for analgesia.

Fentanyl causes miosis even in total darkness. Pinpoint pupils are a sign of opioid overdose but are not pathognomonic (e.g., pontine lesions of hemorrhagic or ischemic origin may produce similar findings).

Gastrointestinal System

Fentanyl causes a reduction in motility associated with an increase in smooth muscle tone in the antrum of the stomach and in the duodenum. Digestion of food is delayed in the small intestine and propulsive contractions are decreased. Propulsive peristaltic waves in the colon are decreased, while tone may be increased to the point of spasm resulting in constipation. Other opioid-induced effects may include a reduction in gastric, biliary and pancreatic secretions, spasm of the sphincter of Oddi, and transient elevations in serum amylase.

Cardiovascular System

Fentanyl may produce release of histamine with or without associated peripheral vasodilation. Manifestations of histamine release and/or peripheral vasodilation may include pruritus, flushing, red eyes, sweating, and/or orthostatic hypotension.

Endocrine System

Opioid agonists have been shown to have a variety of effects on the secretion of hormones. Opioids inhibit the secretion of ACTH, cortisol, and luteinizing hormone (LH) in humans. They also stimulate prolactin, growth hormone (GH) secretion, and pancreatic secretion of insulin and glucagon in humans and other species, rats and dogs. Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) has been shown to be both inhibited and stimulated by opioids.

Respiratory System

All opioid mu-receptor agonists, including fentanyl, produce dose-dependent respiratory depression. The risk of respiratory depression is less in patients receiving chronic opioid therapy who develop tolerance to respiratory depression and other opioid effects. During the titration phase of the clinical trials, somnolence, which may be a precursor to respiratory depression, did increase in patients who were treated with higher doses of ACTIQ. Peak respiratory depressive effects may be seen as early as 15 to 30 minutes from the start of oral transmucosal fentanyl citrate product administration and may persist for several hours.

Serious or fatal respiratory depression can occur even at recommended doses. Fentanyl depresses the cough reflex as a result of its CNS activity. Although not observed with oral transmucosal fentanyl products in clinical trials, fentanyl given rapidly by intravenous injection in large doses may interfere with respiration by causing rigidity in the muscles of respiration. Therefore, physicians and other healthcare providers should be aware of this potential complication [see BOXED WARNING -WARNING: Risk of Respiratory Depression, Medication Errors, Abuse Potential, CONTRAINDICATIONS, WARNINGS AND PRECAUTIONS, ADVERSE REACTIONS, and OVERDOSAGE].



The absorption pharmacokinetics of fentanyl from the oral transmucosal dosage form is a combination of an initial rapid absorption from the buccal mucosa and a more prolonged absorption of swallowed fentanyl from the GI tract. Both the blood fentanyl profile and the bioavailability of fentanyl will vary depending on the fraction of the dose that is absorbed through the oral mucosa and the fraction swallowed.

Absolute bioavailability, as determined by area under the concentration-time curve, of 15 mcg/kg in 12 adult males was 50% compared to intravenous fentanyl.

Normally, approximately 25% of the total dose of ACTIQ is rapidly absorbed from the buccal mucosa and becomes systemically available. The remaining 75% of the total dose is swallowed with the saliva and then is slowly absorbed from the GI tract. About 1/3 of this amount (25% of the total dose) escapes hepatic and intestinal first-pass elimination and becomes systemically available. Thus, the generally observed 50% bioavailability of ACTIQ is divided equally between rapid transmucosal and slower GI absorption. Therefore, a unit dose of ACTIQ, if chewed and swallowed, might result in lower peak concentrations and lower bioavailability than when consumed as directed.

Dose proportionality among four of the available strengths of ACTIQ (200, 400, 800, and 1600 mcg) has been demonstrated in a balanced crossover design in adult subjects (n=11). Mean serum fentanyl levels following these four doses of ACTIQ are shown in Figure 1. The curves for each dose level are similar in shape with increasing dose levels producing increasing serum fentanyl levels. Cmax and AUC0-∞ increased in a dose-dependent manner that is approximately proportional to the ACTIQ administered.

Figure 1: Mean Serum Fentanyl Concentration (ng/mL) in Adult Subjects Comparing 4 Doses of ACTIQ

Mean Serum Fentanyl Concentration - Illustration

The pharmacokinetic parameters of the four strengths of ACTIQ tested in the dose-proportionality study are shown in Table 3. The mean Cmax ranged from 0.39 -2.51 ng/mL. The median time of maximum plasma concentration (Tmax) across these four doses of ACTIQ varied from 20 -40 minutes (range of 20 – 480 minutes) as measured after the start of administration.

Table 3: Pharmacokinetic Parameters* in Adult Subjects Receiving 200, 400, 800, and 1600 mcg Units of ACTIQ

Pharmacokinetic Parameter 200 mcg 400 mcg 800mcg 1600 mcg
Tmax, minute median (range) 40 (20-120) 25 (20-240) 25 (20-120) 20 (20-480)
Cmax, ng/mL mean (%CV) 0.39 (23) 0.75 (33) 1.55 (30) 2.51 (23)
AUC0-1440, ng/mL minute mean (%CV) 102 (65) 243 (67) 573 (64) 1026 (67)
t½, minute mean (%CV) 193 (48) 386 (115) 381 (55) 358 (45)
* Based on arterial blood samples.


Fentanyl is highly lipophilic. Animal data showed that following absorption, fentanyl is rapidly distributed to the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys and spleen followed by a slower redistribution to muscles and fat. The plasma protein binding of fentanyl is 80-85%. The main binding protein is alpha-1-acid glycoprotein, but both albumin and lipoproteins contribute to some extent. The free fraction of fentanyl increases with acidosis. The mean volume of distribution at steady state (Vss) was 4 L/kg.


Fentanyl is metabolized in the liver and in the intestinal mucosa to norfentanyl by cytochrome P450 3A4 isoform. Norfentanyl was not found to be pharmacologically active in animal studies [see DRUG INTERACTIONS].


Fentanyl is primarily (more than 90%) eliminated by biotransformation to N-dealkylated and hydroxylated inactive metabolites. Less than 7% of the dose is excreted unchanged in the urine, and only about 1% is excreted unchanged in the feces. The metabolites are mainly excreted in the urine, while fecal excretion is less important. The total plasma clearance of fentanyl was 0.5 L/hr/kg (range 0.3 – 0.7 L/hr/kg). The terminal elimination half-life after ACTIQ administration is about 7 hours.

Clinical Studies

ACTIQ was investigated in clinical trials involving 257 opioid tolerant adult cancer patients experiencing breakthrough cancer pain. Breakthrough cancer pain was defined as a transient flare of moderate-to-severe pain occurring in cancer patients experiencing persistent cancer pain otherwise controlled with maintenance doses of opioid medications including at least 60 mg morphine/day, 50 mcg transdermal fentanyl/hour, or an equianalgesic dose of another opioid for a week or longer.

In two dose titration studies 95 of 127 patients (75%) who were on stable doses of either long-acting oral opioids or transdermal fentanyl for their persistent cancer pain titrated to a successful dose of ACTIQ to treat their breakthrough cancer pain within the dose range offered (200, 400, 600, 800, 1200 and 1600 mcg). A “successful” dose was defined as a dose where one unit of ACTIQ could be used consistently for at least two consecutive days to treat breakthrough cancer pain without unacceptable side effects. In these studies 11% of patients withdrew due to adverse reactions and 14% withdrew due to other reasons.

The successful dose of ACTIQ for breakthrough cancer pain was not predicted from the daily maintenance dose of opioid used to manage the persistent cancer pain and is thus best determined by dose titration.

A double-blind placebo controlled crossover study was performed in cancer patients to evaluate the effectiveness of ACTIQ for the treatment of breakthrough cancer pain. Of 130 patients who entered the study 92 patients (71%) achieved a successful dose during the titration phase. The distribution of successful doses is shown in Table 4.

Table 4: Successful Dose of ACTIQ Following Initial Titration

ACTIQ Dose Total No. (%)
200 mcg 13 (14)
400 mcg 19 (21)
600 mcg 14 (15)
800 mcg 18 (20)
1200 mcg 13 (14)
1600 mcg 15 (16)
Mean +/-SD 789 +/-468 mcg

On average, patients over 65 years of age titrated to a mean dose that was about 200 mcg less than the mean dose to which younger adult patients were titrated.

ACTIQ was administered beginning at Time 0 minutes and produced more pain relief compared with placebo at 15, 30, 45, and 60 minutes as measured after the start of administration (see Figure 2). The differences were statistically significant.

Figure 2: Pain Relief (PR) Scores (Mean±SD) During the Double-Blind Phase – All Patients with Evaluable Episodes on Both ACTIQ and Placebo (N=86)

Pain Relief (PR) Scores - Illustration

Last reviewed on RxList: 6/13/2012
This monograph has been modified to include the generic and brand name in many instances.


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