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Exploring pharmacological activities and signaling of morphinans substituted in position 6 as potent agonists interacting with the μ opioid receptor

Tanila Ben Haddou1, Davide Malfacini2, Girolamo Calo2, Mario D Aceto3, Louis S Harris3, John R Traynor4, Andrew Coop5, Helmut Schmidhammer1 and Mariana Spetea1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Institute of Pharmacy and Center for Molecular Biosciences Innsbruck (CMBI), University of Innsbruck, Innrain 80-82, Innsbruck A-6020, Austria

2 Department of Medical Sciences, Section of Pharmacology and Italian Institute of Neuroscience, University of Ferrara, Ferrara I-44121, Italy

3 Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, School of Medicine, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA 23298-0613, USA

4 Department of Pharmacology, University of Michigan Medical School, 1301 MSRB III, 1150 West Medical Center Drive, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-5632, USA

5 Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Maryland, School of Pharmacy, Baltimore, MD 21201, USA

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Molecular Pain 2014, 10:48  doi:10.1186/1744-8069-10-48

Published: 24 July 2014



Opioid analgesics are the most effective drugs for the treatment of moderate to severe pain. However, they also produce several adverse effects that can complicate pain management. The μ opioid (MOP) receptor, a G protein-coupled receptor, is recognized as the opioid receptor type which primarily mediates the pharmacological actions of clinically used opioid agonists. The morphinan class of analgesics including morphine and oxycodone are of main importance as therapeutically valuable drugs. Though the natural alkaloid morphine contains a C-6-hydroxyl group and the semisynthetic derivative oxycodone has a 6-carbonyl function, chemical approaches have uncovered that functionalizing position 6 gives rise to a range of diverse activities. Hence, position 6 of N-methylmorphinans is one of the most manipulated sites, and is established to play a key role in ligand binding at the MOP receptor, efficacy, signaling, and analgesic potency. We have earlier reported on a chemically innovative modification in oxycodone resulting in novel morphinans with 6-acrylonitrile incorporated substructures.


This study describes in vitro and in vivo pharmacological activities and signaling of new morphinans substituted in position 6 with acrylonitrile and amido functions as potent agonists and antinociceptive agents interacting with MOP receptors. We show that the presence of a 6-cyano group in N-methylmorphinans has a strong influence on the binding to the opioid receptors and post-receptor signaling. One 6-cyano-N-methylmorphinan of the series was identified as the highest affinity and most selective MOP agonist, and very potent in stimulating G protein coupling and intracellular calcium release through the MOP receptor. In vivo, this MOP agonist showed to be greatly effective against thermal and chemical nociception in mice with marked increased antinociceptive potency than the lead molecule oxycodone.


Development of such novel chemotypes by targeting position 6 provides valuable insights on ligand-receptor interaction and molecular mode of action, and may aid in identification of opioid therapeutics with enhanced analgesic properties and fewer undesirable effects.

Opioid receptors; Agonist; Morphine; Oxycodone; Pain; Analgesia; Signaling; G protein; Calcium mobilization