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Ann Neurol. 2010 May;67(5):559-69. doi: 10.1002/ana.22002.

How to design an opioid drug that causes reduced tolerance and dependence.

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Department of Neurology, University of California, San Francisco, Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center, Emeryville, CA, USA.


Mu opioid receptor (MOR) agonists such as morphine are extremely effective treatments for acute pain. In the setting of chronic pain, however, their long-term utility is limited by the development of tolerance and physical dependence. Drug companies have tried to overcome these problems by simply "dialing up" signal transduction at the receptor, designing more potent and efficacious agonists and more long-lasting formulations. Neither of these strategies has proven to be successful, however, because the net amount of signal transduction, particularly over extended periods of drug use, is a product of much more than the pharmacokinetic properties of potency, efficacy, half-life, and bioavailability, the mainstays of traditional pharmaceutical screening. Both the quantity and quality of signal transduction are influenced by many regulated processes, including receptor desensitization, trafficking, and oligomerization. Importantly, the efficiency with which an agonist first stimulates signal transduction is not necessarily related to the efficiency with which it stimulates these other processes. Here we describe recent findings that suggest MOR agonists with diminished propensity to cause tolerance and dependence can be identified by screening drugs for the ability to induce MOR desensitization, endocytosis, and recycling. We also discuss preliminary evidence that heteromers of the delta opioid receptor and the MOR are pronociceptive, and that drugs that spare such heteromers may also induce reduced tolerance.

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