BACKGROUND: R-etomidate possesses unique desirable properties but potently suppresses adrenocortical function. Consequently, efforts are being made to define structure-activity relationships with the goal of designing analogues with reduced adrenocortical toxicity. The authors explored the pharmacological impact of modifying etomidate's chiral center using R-etomidate, S-etomidate, and two achiral etomidate analogues (cyclopropyl etomidate and dihydrogen etomidate). METHODS: The ?-aminobutyric acid type A receptor modulatory potencies of drugs were assessed in oocyte-expressed ?1(L264T)?3?2L and ?1(L264T)?1?2L ?-aminobutyric acid type A receptors (for each drug, n = 6 oocytes per subtype). In rats, hypnotic potencies and durations of action were measured using a righting reflex assay (n = 26 to 30 doses per drug), and adrenocortical potencies were quantified by using an adrenocorticotropic hormone stimulation test (n = 20 experiments per drug). RESULTS: All four drugs activated both ?-aminobutyric acid type A receptor subtypes in vitro and produced hypnosis and suppressed adrenocortical function in rats. However, drug potencies in each model ranged by 1 to 2 orders of magnitude. R-etomidate had the highest ?-aminobutyric acid type A receptor modulatory, hypnotic, and adrenocortical inhibitory potencies. Respectively, R-etomidate, S-etomidate, and cyclopropyl etomidate were 27.4-, 18.9-, and 23.5-fold more potent activators of receptors containing ?3 subunits than ?1 subunits; however, dihydrogen etomidate's subunit selectivity was only 2.48-fold and similar to that of propofol (2.08-fold). S-etomidate was 1/23rd as potent an adrenocortical inhibitor as R-etomidate. CONCLUSION: The linkage between the structure of etomidate's chiral center and its pharmacology suggests that altering etomidate's chiral center may be used as part of a strategy to design analogues with more desirable adrenocortical activities and/or subunit selectivities.