Transport of cyclosporin A (CsA) across Caco-2 cells is modulated by its directional efflux, mediated by a p-glycoprotein-like pump (Augustijns et al., Biochem. Biophys. Res. Comm. 197:360-365, 1994). In addition to this unidirectional flux, oxidative metabolism of CsA by cytochrome P450 is likely to influence the absorption of this cyclic peptide across intestinal mucosa. Thus, metabolism of CsA in the in vitro Caco-2 cell culture system was investigated. Formation of several metabolites was observed during the course of CsA transport across Caco-2 cell monolayers. Results from LC/MS/MS experiments revealed that the major metabolite was 1eta-hydroxy CsA (M-17), one of the three major metabolites produced by CYP3A4 present in both the liver and small intestine in humans. Preincubation of Caco-2 cell monolayers with troleandomycin, a specific inhibitor for the microsomal CYP3A protein, reduced the formation of the metabolite M-17, suggesting that an enzyme that functionally resembles CYP3A is responsible for the formation of this metabolite. However, formation of only the M-17 metabolite suggests that the isozyme present in the Caco-2 cells is distinct from CYP3A4, which also catalyzes the formation of significant quantities of the metabolites 9gamma-hydroxy cyclosporin A (M-1) and 4N-desmethyl cyclosporin A (M-21) from CsA. Interestingly, the amount of M-17 accumulating on the apical (AP) side was much greater than that on the basolateral (BL) side during the AP --> BL transport of CsA across Caco-2 cell monolayers. This is consistent with p-glycoprotein pump-mediated efflux of the metabolite to the apical side. Furthermore, formation of the M-17 metabolite on the AP side of cell monolayers during the AP --> BL transport of CsA was much greater than that during the BL --> AP transport. This result suggests that the p-glycoprotein efflux pump causes an increase in the metabolism of CsA during the course of its AP --> BL transport by effectively slowing down the transport of CsA molecules across Caco-2 cells. Thus, Caco-2 cells serve as an excellent model to dissect the relative roles played by p-glycoprotein-mediated efflux and CYP3A-catalyzed oxidation in modulating the overall absorption of CsA and other such compounds.