Remifentanil produces cross-desensitization and tolerance with morphine on the mu-opioid receptor

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Abstract

Remifentanil is a powerful mu-opioid (MOP) receptor agonist used in anaesthesia with a very short half-life. However, per-operative perfusion of remifentanil was shown to increase morphine consumption during post-operative period to relieve pain. In the present study, we aimed to describe the cellular mechanisms responsible for this apparent reduction of morphine efficacy. For this purpose, we first examined the pharmacological properties of both remifentanil and morphine at the MOP receptor, endogenously expressed in the human neuroblastoma SH-SY5Y cell line, to regulate adenylyl cyclase and the MAP kinase ERK1/2 pathway, their potency to promote MOP receptor phosphorylation, arrestin 3-CFP (cyan fluorescent protein) recruitment and receptor trafficking during acute and sustained exposure. In the second part of this work, we studied the effects of a prior exposure of remifentanil on morphine-induced inhibition of cAMP accumulation, activation of ERK1/2 and analgesia. We showed that sustained exposure to remifentanil promoted a rapid desensitization of opioid receptors on both signalling pathways and a pretreatment with this agonist reduced signal transduction produced by a second challenge with morphine. While both opioid agonists promoted Ser375 phosphorylation on MOP receptor, remifentanil induced a rapid internalization of opioid receptors compared to morphine but without detectable arrestin 3-CFP translocation to the plasma membrane in our experimental conditions. Lastly, a cross-tolerance between remifentanil and morphine was observed in mice using the hot plate test. Our in vitro and in vivo data thus demonstrated that remifentanil produced a rapid desensitization and internalization of the MOP receptor that would reduce the anti-nociceptive effects of morphine.

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