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Open Access Research

Analgesic tolerance of opioid agonists in mutant mu-opioid receptors expressed in sensory neurons following intrathecal plasmid gene delivery

Guangwen Li1, Fei Ma12, Yanping Gu1 and Li-Yen Mae Huang1*

  • * Corresponding author: Li-Yen M Huang lmhuang@utmb.edu

  • † Equal contributors

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Neuroscience and Cell Biology, University of Texas Medical Branch, 301 University Boulevard, Galveston, TX 77555-1069, USA

2 Department of Physiology, University of Kentucky, 800 Rose Street, Lexington, KY 40536-0298, USA

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Molecular Pain 2013, 9:63  doi:10.1186/1744-8069-9-63

Published: 5 December 2013

Abstract

Background

Phosphorylation sites in the C-terminus of mu-opioid receptors (MORs) are known to play critical roles in the receptor functions. Our understanding of their participation in opioid analgesia is mostly based on studies of opioid effects on mutant receptors expressed in in vitro preparations, including cell lines, isolated neurons and brain slices. The behavioral consequences of the mutation have not been fully explored due to the complexity in studies of mutant receptors in vivo. To facilitate the determination of the contribution of phosphorylation sites in MOR to opioid-induced analgesic behaviors, we expressed mutant and wild-type human MORs (hMORs) in sensory dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons, a major site for nociceptive (pain) signaling and determined morphine- and the full MOR agonist, DAMGO,-induced effects on heat-induced hyperalgesic behaviors and potassium current (IK) desensitization in these rats.

Findings

A mutant hMOR DNA with the putative phosphorylation threonine site at position 394 replaced by an alanine (T394A), i.e., hMOR-T, or a plasmid containing wild type hMOR (as a positive control) was intrathecally delivered. The plasmid containing GFP or saline was used as the negative control. To limit the expression of exogenous DNA to neurons of DRGs, a neuron-specific promoter was included in the plasmid. Following a plasmid injection, hMOR-T or hMOR receptors were expressed in small and medium DRG neurons. Compared with saline or GFP rats, the analgesic potency of morphine was increased to a similar extent in hMOR-T and hMOR rats. Morphine induced minimum IK desensitization in both rat groups. In contrast, DAMGO increased analgesic potency and elicited IK desensitization to a significantly less extent in hMOR-T than in hMOR rats. The development and extent of acute and chronic tolerance induced by repeated morphine or DAMGO applications were not altered by the T394A mutation.

Conclusions

These results indicate that phosphorylation of T394 plays a critical role in determining the potency of DAMGO-induced analgesia and IK desensitization, but has limited effect on morphine-induced responses. On the other hand, the mutation contributes minimally to both DAMGO- and morphine-induced behavioral tolerance. Furthermore, the study shows that plasmid gene delivery of mutant receptors to DRG neurons is a useful strategy to explore nociceptive behavioral consequences of the mutation.

Keywords:
Opioid tolerance; Opioid receptors; T394A mutation; Dorsal root ganglion; Nociception; Plasmid DNA injection