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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1998 May 26;95(11):6326-30.

Abolition of morphine-immunosuppression in mice lacking the mu-opioid receptor gene.

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Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Unité Propre de Recherche 9050, France.


Opiates are potent analgesic and addictive compounds. They also act on immune responses, and morphine, the prototypic opiate, has been repeatedly described as an immunosuppressive drug. Pharmacological studies have suggested that the inhibitory action of opiates on immunity is mediated by multiple opioid receptor sites but molecular evidence has remained elusive. Recently, three genes encoding mu- (MOR), delta-, and kappa-opioid receptors have been cloned. To investigate whether the mu-opioid receptor is functionally implicated in morphine immunosuppression in vivo, we have examined immune responses of mice with a genetic disruption of the MOR gene. In the absence of drug, there was no difference between wild-type and mutant mice with regard to a large number of immunological endpoints, suggesting that the lack of MOR-encoded protein has little consequence on immune status. Chronic morphine administration induced lymphoid organ atrophy, diminished the ratio of CD4(+)CD8(+) cells in the thymus and strongly reduced natural killer activity in wild-type mice. None of these effects was observed in MOR-deficient mice after morphine treatment. This demonstrates that the MOR gene product represents a major molecular target for morphine action on the immune system. Because our previous studies of MOR-deficient mice have shown that this receptor protein is also responsible for morphine analgesia, reward, and physical dependence, the present results imply that MOR-targeted therapeutic drugs that are developed for the treatment of pain or opiate addiction may concomitantly influence immune responses.

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