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Br J Anaesth. 2011 Jul;107(1):8-18. doi: 10.1093/bja/aer115. Epub 2011 May 24.

Opioid receptor subtypes: fact or artifact?

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  • 1Department of Cardiovascular Sciences (Pharmacology and Therapeutics Group), Division of Anaesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Management, University of Leicester, Leicester Royal Infirmary, Leicester LE1 5WW, UK.


There is a vast amount of pharmacological evidence favouring the existence of multiple subtypes of opioid receptors. In addition to the primary classification of µ (mu: MOP), δ (delta: DOP), κ (kappa: KOP) receptors, and the nociceptin/orphanin FQ peptide receptor (NOP), various groups have further classified the pharmacological µ into µ(1-3), the δ into δ(1-2)/δ(complexed/non-complexed), and the κ into κ(1-3). From an anaesthetic perspective, the suggestions that µ(1) produced analgesia and µ(2) produced respiratory depression are particularly important. However, subsequent to the formal identification of the primary opioid receptors (MOP/DOP/KOP/NOP) by cloning and the use of this information to produce knockout animals, evidence for these additional subtypes is lacking. Indeed, knockout of a single gene (and hence receptor) results in a loss of all function associated with that receptor. In the case of MOP knockout, analgesia and respiratory depression is lost. This suggests that further sub-classification of the primary types is unwise. So how can the wealth of pharmacological data be reconciled with new molecular information? In addition to some simple misclassification (κ(3) is probably NOP), there are several possibilities which include: (i) alternate splicing of a common gene product, (ii) receptor dimerization, (iii) interaction of a common gene product with other receptors/signalling molecules, or (iv) a combination of (i)-(iii). Assigning variations in ligand activity (pharmacological subtypes) to one or more of these molecular suggestions represents an interesting challenge for future opioid research.

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