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BACKGROUND: Tyr-Tic (1,2,3,4-tetrahydroisoquinoline-3-carboxylic acid) and Tyr-Tic-Ala were the first peptides with delta opioid antagonist activity lacking Phe, considered essential for opioid activity based on the N-terminal tripeptide sequence (Tyr-D-Xaa-Phe) of amphibian skin opioids. Analogs were then designed to restrain the rotational flexibility of Tyr by the substitution of 2,6-dimethyl-L-tyrosine (Dmt). MATERIALS AND METHODS: Tyr and Dmt peptides were synthesized by solid phase and solution methods using Fmoc technology or condensing Boc-Dmt-OH or Boc-Tyr(But)-OH with H-L-Tic-OBut or H-D-Tic-OBut, respectively. Peptides were purified (> 99%) by HPLC and characteristics determined by 1H-NMR, FAB-MS, melting point, TLC, and amino acid analyses. RESULTS: H-Dmt-Tic-OH had high affinity (Ki delta = 0.022 nM) and extraordinary selectivity (Ki mu/Ki delta = 150,000); H-Dmt-Tic-Ala-OH had a Ki delta = 0.29 nM and delta selectivity = 20,000. Affinity and selectivity increased 8700- and 1000-fold relative to H-Tyr-Tic-OH, respectively. H-Dmt-Tic-OH and H-Dmt-Tic-NH2 fitted one-site receptor binding models (eta = 0.939-0.987), while H-Dmt-Tic-ol, H-Dmt-Tic-Ala-OH and H-Dmt-Tic-Ala-NH2 best fitted two-site models (eta = 0.708-0.801, F 18.9-26.0, p < 0.0001). Amidation increased mu affinity by 10- to 100-fold and acted synergistically with D-Tic2 to reverse selectivity (delta-->mu). Dmt-Tic di- and tripeptides exhibited delta antagonist bioactivity (Ke = 4-66 nM) with mouse vas deferens and lacked agonist mu activity (> 10 microM) in guinea-pig ileum preparations. Dmt-Tic analogs weakly interacted with kappa receptors in the 1 to > 20 microM range. CONCLUSIONS: Dmt-Tic opioidmimetic peptides represent a highly potent class of opioid peptide antagonists with greater potency than the nonopioid delta antagonist naltrindole and have potential application as clinical and therapeutic compounds.