Chronic morphine treatment induces oxidant and apoptotic damage in the mice liver

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Recently many researchers have proposed a protective role for morphine against tumor growth and metastasis, especially through induction of apoptosis in tumoral cells. These findings may lead to underestimation of cytotoxic effects of opioid drugs which are usually expected only at high doses. The present study was conducted to clarify whether repeated morphine administration, which is commonly used for relief from chronic pain, would interfere with liver antioxidant defence and hepatocytes vitality. Morphine was injected repeatedly at doses that have been reported to relieve cancer pain and reduce tumor spread in mice (5 and 10 mg/kg/day for nine consecutive days). The changes in hepatic glutathione concentration, its synthesis pathway and enzymatic antioxidant defense revealed the pro-oxidant effects of chronic morphine treatment on the liver. None of these changes were observed in those mice that were co-treated with naltrexone (opioid antagonist) and same doses of morphine. However induction of liver conjugating enzymes following morphine treatment was not receptor mediated. Moreover, chronic morphine treatment induced hepatocytes apoptosis. Interestingly, the apoptotic changes were antagonized by co-administration of either naltrexone or thiol antioxidant. In conclusion, although hepatotoxic effects of morphine at high doses have been reported previously, our findings propose that repeated morphine administration even at lower doses would induce oxidative stress in the liver, which may contribute to induction of apoptosis in hepatocytes. Since many of the observed adverse effects were mediated by opioid receptors, our results suggest that other opioid analgesics should also be used more cautiously.

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