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Concept: Buprenorphine


Objective To compare the risk for all cause and overdose mortality in people with opioid dependence during and after substitution treatment with methadone or buprenorphine and to characterise trends in risk of mortality after initiation and cessation of treatment.Design Systematic review and meta-analysis.Data sources Medline, Embase, PsycINFO, and LILACS to September 2016.Study selection Prospective or retrospective cohort studies in people with opioid dependence that reported deaths from all causes or overdose during follow-up periods in and out of opioid substitution treatment with methadone or buprenorphine.Data extraction and synthesis Two independent reviewers performed data extraction and assessed study quality. Mortality rates in and out of treatment were jointly combined across methadone or buprenorphine cohorts by using multivariate random effects meta-analysis.Results There were 19 eligible cohorts, following 122 885 people treated with methadone over 1.3-13.9 years and 15 831 people treated with buprenorphine over 1.1-4.5 years. Pooled all cause mortality rates were 11.3 and 36.1 per 1000 person years in and out of methadone treatment (unadjusted out-to-in rate ratio 3.20, 95% confidence interval 2.65 to 3.86) and reduced to 4.3 and 9.5 in and out of buprenorphine treatment (2.20, 1.34 to 3.61). In pooled trend analysis, all cause mortality dropped sharply over the first four weeks of methadone treatment and decreased gradually two weeks after leaving treatment. All cause mortality remained stable during induction and remaining time on buprenorphine treatment. Overdose mortality evolved similarly, with pooled overdose mortality rates of 2.6 and 12.7 per 1000 person years in and out of methadone treatment (unadjusted out-to-in rate ratio 4.80, 2.90 to 7.96) and 1.4 and 4.6 in and out of buprenorphine treatment.Conclusions Retention in methadone and buprenorphine treatment is associated with substantial reductions in the risk for all cause and overdose mortality in people dependent on opioids. The induction phase onto methadone treatment and the time immediately after leaving treatment with both drugs are periods of particularly increased mortality risk, which should be dealt with by both public health and clinical strategies to mitigate such risk. These findings are potentially important, but further research must be conducted to properly account for potential confounding and selection bias in comparisons of mortality risk between opioid substitution treatments, as well as throughout periods in and out of each treatment.

Concepts: Cohort study, Opioid, Morphine, Naloxone, Analgesic, Buprenorphine, Methadone, Opioids


This issue of Molecular Pharmacology is dedicated to Dr. Avram Goldstein, the journal’s founding Editor and one of the leaders in the development of modern pharmacology. This chapter focuses on his contributions to the discovery of the dynorphins and evidence that members of this family of opioid peptides are endogenous agonists for the kappa opioid receptor. In his original publication describing the purification and sequencing of dynorphin A, Avram described this peptide as ‘extraordinarily potent’ (‘dyn’ from the Greek, dynamis = power and ‘-orphin’ for endogenous morphine peptide). The name originally referred to its high affinity and great potency in the bioassay that was used to follow its activity during purification, but the name has come to have a second meaning: Studies of its physiological function in brain continue to provide powerful insights to the molecular mechanisms controlling the mood disorders and drug addiction. In the 30 years since its discovery, we have learned that the dynorphin peptides are released in brain during stress exposure. Once released, they activate kappa opioid receptors distributed throughout the brain and spinal cord where they trigger cellular responses resulting in different stress responses: analgesia, dysphoria-like behaviors, anxiety-like responses, and increased addiction behaviors in experimental animals. Avram predicted that a detailed molecular analysis of opiate drug actions would someday lead to better treatments for drug addiction, and he would be gratified to know that subsequent studies enabled by his discovery of the dynorphins resulted in insights that hold great promise for new treatments for addiction and depressive disorders.

Concepts: Opioid, Morphine, Opioid receptor, Heroin, Buprenorphine, Endorphin, Codeine, Kappa Opioid receptor


It is well-known that genotypic differences can account for the subject-specific responses to opiate administration. In this regard, the basal activity of the endogenous system (either at the receptor or at the ligand level) can modulate the effects of exogenous agonists as morphine, and vice versa. The μ opioid receptor from zebrafish, dre-oprm1, binds endogenous peptides and morphine with similar affinities. Morphine administration during development altered the expression of the endogenous opioid propeptides proenkephalins and proopiomelanocortin. Treatment with opioid peptides (Met-ENK, MEGY and β-END) modulated dre-oprm1 expression during development. Knocking-down dre-oprm1 gene significantly modified the mRNA expression of the penk and pomc genes, thus indicating that oprm1 is involved in shaping penk and pomc expression. Besides, the absence of a functional oprm1 clearly disrupted the embryonic development, as proliferation was disorganized in the central nervous system of oprm1-morphant embryos: mitotic cells were found widespread through the optic tectum, and not restricted to the proliferative areas of the mid- and hindbrain. TUNEL staining revealed that the number of apoptotic cells in the Central Nervous System (CNS) of morphants was clearly increased at 24 hpf. These findings will help to understand the role of the endogenous opioid system in the CNS development. Our results will also contribute to unravel the complex feedback loops which modulate opioid activity, and which may be involved in establishing a coordinated expression of both receptors and endogenous ligands. Further knowledge of the complex interactions between the opioid system and analgesic drugs will provide insights that may be relevant for analgesic therapy.

Concepts: Central nervous system, Opioid, Morphine, Opioid receptor, Buprenorphine, Hydrocodone, Codeine, Oxycodone


Music’s universality and its ability to deeply affect emotions suggest an evolutionary origin. Previous investigators have found that naltrexone (NTX), a μ-opioid antagonist, may induce reversible anhedonia, attenuating both positive and negative emotions. The neurochemical basis of musical experience is not well-understood, and the NTX-induced anhedonia hypothesis has not been tested with music. Accordingly, we administered NTX or placebo on two different days in a double-blind crossover study, and assessed participants' responses to music using both psychophysiological (objective) and behavioral (subjective) measures. We found that both positive and negative emotions were attenuated. We conclude that endogenous opioids are critical to experiencing both positive and negative emotions in music, and that music uses the same reward pathways as food, drug and sexual pleasure. Our findings add to the growing body of evidence for the evolutionary biological substrates of music.

Concepts: Psychology, Pharmacology, Opioid, Drug addiction, Naloxone, Buprenorphine, Music, Recreational drug use


The increasing availability of prescription opioid analgesics for the treatment of pain has been paralleled by an epidemic of opioid misuse, diversion, and overdose. The development of abuse-deterrent formulations (ADF) of conventional opioids such as oxycodone and morphine represents an advance in the field and has had a positive but insufficient impact, as most opioids are still prescribed in highly abusable, non-ADF forms, and abusers can tamper with ADF medications to liberate the abusable opioid within. The abuse liability of mu-opioid agonists appears to be dependent on their rapid rate of entry into the central nervous system (CNS) while analgesic activity appears to be a function of CNS exposure alone, suggesting that a new opioid agonist with an inherently low rate of influx across the blood-brain barrier could mediate analgesia with low abuse liability, regardless of formulation or route of administration. NKTR-181 is a novel, long-acting, selective mu-opioid agonist with structural properties that reduce its rate of entry across the blood-brain barrier compared with traditional mu-opioid agonists. NKTR-181 demonstrated maximum analgesic activity comparable to that of oxycodone in hot-plate latency and acetic acid writhing models. NKTR-181 was distinguishable from oxycodone by its reduced abuse potential in self-administration and progressive ratio break point models, with behavioral effects similar to those of saline, as well as reduced CNS side effects as measured by the modified Irwin test. The in vitro and in vivo studies presented here demonstrate that NKTR-181 is the first selective mu-opioid agonist to combine analgesic efficacy and reduced abuse liability through the alteration of brain-entry kinetics.

Concepts: Pharmacology, Opioid, Morphine, Analgesic, Buprenorphine, Hydrocodone, Codeine, Oxycodone


Morphine is an alkaloid from the opium poppy used to treat pain. The potentially lethal side effects of morphine and related opioids-which include fatal respiratory depression-are thought to be mediated by μ-opioid-receptor (μOR) signalling through the β-arrestin pathway or by actions at other receptors. Conversely, G-protein μOR signalling is thought to confer analgesia. Here we computationally dock over 3 million molecules against the μOR structure and identify new scaffolds unrelated to known opioids. Structure-based optimization yields PZM21-a potent Gi activator with exceptional selectivity for μOR and minimal β-arrestin-2 recruitment. Unlike morphine, PZM21 is more efficacious for the affective component of analgesia versus the reflexive component and is devoid of both respiratory depression and morphine-like reinforcing activity in mice at equi-analgesic doses. PZM21 thus serves as both a probe to disentangle μOR signalling and a therapeutic lead that is devoid of many of the side effects of current opioids.

Concepts: Opioid, Morphine, Heroin, Buprenorphine, Hydrocodone, Methadone, Codeine, Opium


Hypothalamic pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) neurons promote satiety. Cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1R) is critical for the central regulation of food intake. Here we test whether CB1R-controlled feeding in sated mice is paralleled by decreased activity of POMC neurons. We show that chemical promotion of CB1R activity increases feeding, and notably, CB1R activation also promotes neuronal activity of POMC cells. This paradoxical increase in POMC activity was crucial for CB1R-induced feeding, because designer-receptors-exclusively-activated-by-designer-drugs (DREADD)-mediated inhibition of POMC neurons diminishes, whereas DREADD-mediated activation of POMC neurons enhances CB1R-driven feeding. The Pomc gene encodes both the anorexigenic peptide α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone, and the opioid peptide β-endorphin. CB1R activation selectively increases β-endorphin but not α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone release in the hypothalamus, and systemic or hypothalamic administration of the opioid receptor antagonist naloxone blocks acute CB1R-induced feeding. These processes involve mitochondrial adaptations that, when blocked, abolish CB1R-induced cellular responses and feeding. Together, these results uncover a previously unsuspected role of POMC neurons in the promotion of feeding by cannabinoids.

Concepts: Receptor, Opioid, Receptor antagonist, Opioid receptor, Cannabinoid receptor, Dopamine, Buprenorphine, Proopiomelanocortin


To examine the population-wide overdose risk emerging from the prescription of methadone and buprenorphine for opioid substitution treatment in England and Wales.

Concepts: Opioid, Morphine, Naloxone, England, Analgesic, Buprenorphine, Wales, Methadone


Prescription opioid analgesics play an important role in the treatment of postoperative pain; however, unused opioids may be diverted for nonmedical use and contribute to opioid-related injuries and deaths.

Concepts: Opioid, Pain, Morphine, Buprenorphine, Hydrocodone


Many observers were surprised when Indiana Governor Mike Pence issued an executive order on March 26, 2015, declaring a public health emergency after a rapidly escalating outbreak of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was identified in Scott County, a rural region on the Kentucky border.(1) Others, however, had seen it coming. Over the years, a growing number of young people in Scott County - like those in surrounding counties and states - had begun abusing opiates such as oxymorphone, an opioid analgesic prescribed by local medical providers, until a more tamper-resistant formulation and policy reform began limiting its abuse. Facing the . . .

Concepts: HIV, AIDS, Opioid, Morphine, Buprenorphine, Hydrocodone, Codeine, Oxycodone