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Int J Clin Pract Suppl. 2003 Feb;(133):3-8; discussion 23-4.

Buprenorphine: new pharmacological aspects.

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Department of Pharmacology, Temple University School of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.


Buprenorphine is an opioid analgesic, derived from thebaine. Buprenorphine was initially classified as a "mixed agonist-antagonist analgesic" or a narcotic antagonist analgesic. The work of Martin et al (1976) on the animal model of the chronic spinal dog substantiated the substance's action as partial agonist at the mu-opioid receptor. These findings were underscored by the substance's general pharmacological profile. Further, buprenorphine was one of the first narcotic analgesics to be assessed for its abuse liability in humans. The lower abuse liability of the drug in humans soon turned it into a widely used therapeutic agent in patients with opioid dependence. Interest in buprenorphine spanning more than 30 years has been attributed to its unique pharmacological characteristics, including moderate intrinsic activity, high affinity to and slow dissociation from mu-opioid receptors. Early pharmacological studies demonstrated buprenorphine's strong binding to opioid receptors, and an inverted U-shaped dose-response curve in rodents. In the rat paw formalin test, although buprenorphine demonstrated a bell-shaped dose-response curve against an acute noxious stimulus, it showed a classic sigmoidal curve in the later phase of the assay. In most preclinical antinociceptive tests, buprenorphine was shown to be fully efficacious, with an antinociceptive potency 25 to 40 times higher than morphine. A ceiling effect for respiratory depression (but not for analgesia) has been demonstrated in humans. Current studies are focusing on norbuprenorphine, an N-dealkylated metabolite of buprenorphine. Norbuprenorphine is a likely contributor to the overall pharmacology of buprenorphine; in the mouse writhing test, norbuprenorphine provides antinociceptive efficacy similar to buprenorphine, with analgesic activity shown to be dose-dependent.

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