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Drug Alcohol Depend. 2012 Mar 1;121(3):189-204. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2011.10.031. Epub 2012 Jan 9.

Examining the role of mu opioid receptor endocytosis in the beneficial and side-effects of prolonged opioid use: from a symposium on new concepts in mu-opioid pharmacology.

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Department of Neurology, Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center, University of California, San Francisco, Emeryville, CA 94608, United States.


Opioid drugs remain the gold standard for the treatment of severe pain, both acute/post-surgical and chronic. However, the utility of opioid drugs for the treatment of chronic pain is compromised by the development of analgesic tolerance which, in turn, leads to dose-escalation and increased likelihood of dangerous side effects, including dependence. Consequently, there remains resistance among clinicians and the general population to using opiates for pain management because of risk of "addiction." These fears are not unwarranted. More than 2.5 million people begin abusing opioid painkillers each year, and prescription opioid abuse is now the second most common type of illegal drug use after marijuana. Some abusers become dependent due to recreational use of prescription painkillers. However, many abusers are among the 40 million people suffering from chronic pain, and developed dependence while using the drugs for legitimate purposes. Both of these trends highlight the need to develop opioid therapeutics with a reduced liability to cause tolerance, dependence and addiction. Identifying the ideal properties of opioid drugs that would retain analgesia but reduce these side-effects has been a goal of my laboratory for more than a decade. During this time, we have proposed the novel hypothesis that opioid drugs that promote desensitization, endocytosis and recycling of the mu-opioid-receptor (MOR) will retain analgesic efficacy, but will have a reduced liability to cause tolerance, dependence and addiction. We have generated substantial data, both pharmacological and genetic to suggest that our hypothesis is a valid one. These data are summarized in this review.

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