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ACS Chem Neurosci. 2012 Sep 19;3(9):720-7. Epub 2012 Jul 5.

Clinically employed opioid analgesics produce antinociception via μ-δ opioid receptor heteromers in Rhesus monkeys.

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Department of Pharmacology, Medical School, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455, United States; Department of Medicinal Chemistry, College of Pharmacy, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455, USA.


Morphine and related drugs are widely employed as analgesics despite the side effects associated with their use. Although morphine is thought to mediate analgesia through mu opioid receptors, delta opioid receptors have been implicated in mediating some side effects such as tolerance and dependence. Here we present evidence in rhesus monkeys that morphine, fentanyl, and possibly methadone selectively activate mu-delta heteromers to produce antinociception that is potently antagonized by the delta opioid receptor antagonist, naltrindole (NTI). Studies with HEK293 cells expressing mu-delta heteromeric opioid receptors exhibit a similar antagonism profile of receptor activation in the presence of NTI. In mice, morphine was potently inhibited by naltrindole when administered intrathecally, but not intracerebroventricularly, suggesting the possible involvement of mu-delta heteromers in the spinal cord of rodents. Taken together, these results strongly suggest that, in primates, mu-delta heteromers are allosterically coupled and mediate the antinociceptive effects of three clinically employed opioid analgesics that have been traditionally viewed as mu-selective. Given the known involvement of delta receptors in morphine tolerance and dependence, our results implicate mu-delta heteromers in mediating both antinociception and these side effects in primates. These results open the door for further investigation in humans.

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