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Forensic Toxicol. 2016;34:329-343. doi: 10.1007/s11419-016-0320-2. Epub 2016 May 17.

Pharmacological evaluation of synthetic cannabinoids identified as constituents of spice.

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Department Forensic Toxicology, Institute of Forensic Medicine, University Hospital of Bonn, Stiftsplatz 12, 53111 Bonn, Germany.
PharmaCenter Bonn, Pharmaceutical Institute, Pharmaceutical Chemistry I, University of Bonn, An der Immenburg 4, 53121 Bonn, Germany.
Research Training Group 1873, University of Bonn, 53127 Bonn, Germany.
Contributed equally


In recent years, many synthetic cannabinoid (CB) receptor agonists have appeared on the market as constituents of herbal incense mixtures known as "spice". Contrary to the declared use, they are perorally consumed as a replacement for marijuana to get "high". In many cases, detailed information on the physicochemical and pharmacological properties of the synthetic compounds found in spice preparations is lacking. We have now evaluated a large series of heterocyclic compounds, 1,3-disubstituted indole and 2-azaindole derivatives known or assumed to be CB1 receptor agonists, many of which have previously been identified in forensic samples. The mainly observed structural variations to circumvent restriction by law were bioisosteric exchanges of functional groups in known CB1 agonists. We analyzed the structure-activity relationships of compounds at human CB1 and CB2 receptors based on affinities obtained in radioligand binding studies, and determined their efficacy in cAMP accumulation assays. Moreover, we investigated the activities of the compounds at the orphan G protein-coupled receptors GPR18 and GPR55 both of which are known to interact with cannabinoids. Most of the investigated compounds behaved as potent full agonists of CB1 and CB2 receptors with affinities in the low nanomolar to subnanomolar concentration range. Some compounds were moderately potent GPR55 antagonists, while none interacted with GPR18. Most derivatives were predicted to cross the blood-brain barrier as determined by bioinformatics tools. These data are useful for assessing synthetic cannabinoids and will be helpful for predicting pharmacological properties of novel compounds that appear on the illicit drug market.


GPR18; GPR55; Indazoles; Indoles; Structure-activity relationship; Synthetic cannabinoid

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