In cell biology, ion trapping is the build-up of a higher concentration of a chemical across a cell membrane due to the pKa value of the chemical and difference of pH across the cell membrane.[1][2] This results in basic chemicals accumulating in acidic bodily fluids such as the cytosol, and acidic chemicals accumulating in basic fluids.


Many cells have other mechanisms to pump a molecule inside or outside the cell against the concentration gradient, but these processes are active ones, meaning that they require enzymes and consume cellular energy. In contrast, ion trapping does not require any enzyme or energy. It is similar to osmosis in that they both involve the semipermeable nature of the cell membrane.

Cells have a more acidic pH inside the cell than outside (gastric mucosal cells being an exception). Therefore, basic drugs (like bupivacaine, pyrimethamine) are more charged inside the cell than outside. The cell membrane is permeable to non-ionized (fat-soluble) molecules; ionized (water-soluble) molecules cannot cross it easily. Once a non-charged molecule of a basic chemical crosses the cell membrane to enter the cell, it becomes charged due to gaining a hydrogen ion because of the lower pH inside the cell, and thus becomes unable to cross back. Because transmembrane equilibrium must be maintained, another unionized molecule must diffuse into the cell to repeat the process. Thus its concentration inside the cell increases many times that of the outside. The non-charged molecules of the drug remain in equal concentration on either side of the cell membrane.

The charge of a molecule depends upon the pH of its solution. In an acidic medium, basic drugs are more charged and acidic drugs are less charged. The converse is true in a basic medium. For example, Naproxen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that is a weak acid (its pKa value is 5.0). The gastric juice has a pH of 2.0. It is a three-fold difference (due to log scale) between its pH and its pKa; therefore there is a 1000× difference between the charged and uncharged concentrations. So, in this case, for every one molecule of charged Naproxen, there are 1000 molecules of uncharged Naproxen at a pH of 2.[3] This is why weak acids are better absorbed from the stomach and weak bases from intestine where the pH is alkaline. When pH of a solution is equal to pKa of dissolved drug, then 50% of the drug is ionized, another 50% is unionized. This is described by the Henderson-Hasselbalch equation.[citation needed]


Ion trapping is the reason why basic (alkaline) drugs are secreted into the stomach (for example morphine), where pH is acidic, and acidic drugs are excreted in urine where the conditions are alkaline. Similarly, ingesting sodium bicarbonate with amphetamine, a weak base, causes better absorption of amphetamine (in stomach) and its lesser excretion (in urine), thus prolonging its actions. Ion trapping can cause partial failure of certain anti-cancer chemotherapies.[4]

Ion trapping is also important outside of pharmacology. For example, it causes weakly acidic hormones to accumulate in the cytosol of cells. This is important in keeping the external concentration of the hormone low in the extracellular environment where many hormones are sensed. Examples of plant hormones that are subjected to ion trapping are abscisic acid, gibberellic acid and retinoic acid. Examples of animal hormones subjected to ion trapping include Prostacyclin and Leukotrienes.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Stephanie T. Weiss (1 January 2009). High-Yield Pharmacology. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. pp. 3–. ISBN 978-0-7817-9273-8.
  2. ^ D. T. Okpako (22 February 1991). Principles of Pharmacology: A Tropical Approach. Cambridge University Press. pp. 118–. ISBN 978-0-521-34095-3.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Mahoney BP, Raghunand N, Baggett B, Gillies RJ (Oct 2003). "Tumor acidity, ion trapping and chemotherapeutics.I Acid pH affects the distribution of chemotherapeutic agents in vitro". Biochem Pharmacol. 66 (7): 1207–18. PMID 14505800.