Sulfonylureas bind to an ATP-dependent K+ (KATP) channel on the cell membrane of pancreatic beta cells. This inhibits a tonic, hyperpolarizing efflux of potassium, thus causing the electric potential over the membrane to become more positive. This depolarization opens voltage-gated Ca2+ channels. The rise in intracellular calcium leads to increased fusion of insulin granulae with the cell membrane, and therefore increased secretion of (pro)insulin.
There is some evidence that sulfonylureas also sensitize β-cells to glucose, that they limit glucose production in the liver, that they decrease lipolysis (breakdown and release of fatty acids by adipose tissue) and decrease clearance of insulin by the liver.
Various sulfonylureas have different pharmacokinetics. The choice depends on the propensity of the patient to develop hypoglycemia - long-acting sulfonylureas with active metabolites can induce hypoglycemia. They can, however, help achieve glycemic control when tolerated by the patient. The shorter-acting agents may not control blood sugar levels adequately.
Due to varying half-life, some drugs have to be taken twice (e.g. tolbutamide) or three times a day rather than once (e.g. glimepiride). The short-acting agents may have to be taken about 30 minutes before the meal, to ascertain maximum efficacy when the food leads to increased blood glucose levels.
Some sulfonylureas are metabolised by liver metabolic enzymes (cytochrome P450) and inducers of this enzyme system (such as the antibiotic rifampicin) can therefore increase the clearance of sulfonylureas. In addition, because some sulfonylureas are bound to plasma proteins, use of drugs that also bind to plasma proteins can release the sulfonylureas from their binding places, leading to increased clearance.
In about 10% of patients, sulfonylureas alone are ineffective in controlling blood glucose levels. Addition of metformin or a thiazolidinedione may be necessary, or (ultimately) insulin. Triple therapy of sulfonylureas, a biguanide (metformin) and a thiazolidinedione is generally discouraged, but some doctors prefer this combination over resorting to insulin.
More recently, a pharmaceutical startup, Remedy Pharmaceuticals, Inc. has begun developing intravenous glyburide as a treatment for acute stroke, traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury based on the identification of a non-selective ATP-gated cation channel which is upregulated in neurovascular tissue during these conditions and closed by sulfonylurea agents.
Some diabetes experts feel that sulfonylureas accelerate the loss of beta cells from the pancreas, and should be avoided.
Like insulin, sulfonylureas can induce weight gain, mainly as a result of edema and reduction of the osmotic diuresis caused by hyperglycemia. Other side-effects are: abdominal upset, headache and hypersensitivity reactions.
Sulfonylureas are potentially teratogenic and cannot be used in pregnancy or in patients who may become pregnant. Impairment of liver or kidney function increase the risk of hypoglycemia, and are contraindications. As other anti-diabetic drugs cannot be used either under these circumstances, insulin therapy is typically recommended during pregnancy and in hepatic and renal failure, although some of the newer agents offer potentially better options.
Second-generation sulfonylureas have increased potency by weight, compared to first-generation sulfonylureas. They have decreased side effects but are more expensive.