Irritable bowel syndrome: new pharmaceutical approaches to treatment

M J Farthing
Baillière's Best Practice & Research. Clinical Gastroenterology 1999, 13 (3): 461-71
The irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a consortium of symptoms including abdominal pain and alterations in the pattern of defaecation. There is no single pathophysiological marker of IBS although it is generally accepted that some patients do have abnormalities of intestinal motility and/or enhanced visceral sensitivity. There is also an increasing acceptance that the central nervous system, an important component of the brain-gut axis, also plays an important role in symptom production both in the response to stress and when there is an underlying affective disorder. During the past decade new therapeutic targets have been identified that have permitted the development of new drugs with therapeutic potential for IBS. Identification and characterization of 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) receptors in the gastrointestinal tract particularly 5-HT3 and 5-HT4 receptors, which are involved not only in modulating gut motility but in visceral sensory pathways, has led to a number of studies of 5-HT3 (Alosetron, Granisetron and Ondansetron) and 5-HT4 (SB-207266A) antagonists. Both classes of drug appear to reduce visceral sensitivity and have inhibitory effects on motor activity in the distal intestine. Early clinical studies suggest that these agents may have a role in painful, diarrhoea-predominant IBS. 5-HT4 agonists (HTF919, Zelmac) may improve constipation-predominant IBS by normalizing bowel habit and thereby reducing abdominal pain. Alternative approaches to reducing visceral sensation include the use of the opioid kappa agonists, which have no central opioid effects although clinical trials have suggested that these agents are not highly effective in relieving IBS pain. There are in addition, new approaches to modify intestinal motility including the development of gut selective muscarinic M3 receptor antagonists such as zamifenacin and the 5-HT4 partial agonist, HTF919. Preliminary studies suggest that these agents may have therapeutic potential in IBS. Anti-depressants are increasingly used to treat affective disorder in IBS but in addition appear to have added value because of their ability to reduce visceral hypersensitivity and alter gut transit. Therapeutic effects are often obtained at doses below those normally used to treat depression. IBS continues to be a therapeutic challenge because of its diverse symptomatology and lack of a single pathophysiological target for drug intervention.

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