Opiate analgesics are widely used in the treatment of severe pain. Because of their importance in therapy, different strategies have been considered for making opiates more effective while curbing their liability to be abused. Although most opiates exert their analgesic effects primarily via μ opioid receptors, a number of studies have shown that δ receptor-selective drugs can enhance their potency. The molecular basis for these findings has not been elucidated previously. In the present study, we examined whether heterodimerization of μ and δ receptors could account for the cross-modulation previously observed between these two receptors. We find that co-expression of μ and δ receptors in heterologous cells followed by selective immunoprecipitation results in the isolation of μ–δ heterodimers. Treatment of these cells with extremely low doses of certain δ-selective ligands results in a significant increase in the binding of a μ receptor agonist. Similarly, treatment with μ-selective ligands results in a significant increase in the binding of a δ receptor agonist. This robust increase is also seen in SKNSH cells that endogenously express both μ and δ receptors. Furthermore, we find that a δ receptor antagonist enhances both the potency and efficacy of the μ receptor signaling; likewise a μ antagonist enhances the potency and efficacy of the δ receptor signaling. A combination of agonists (μ and δ receptor selective) also synergistically binds and potentiates signaling by activating the μ–δ heterodimer. Taken together, these studies show that heterodimers exhibit distinct ligand binding and signaling characteristics. These findings have important clinical ramifications and may provide new foundations for more effective therapies.
Keywords: receptor subtypes, agonist, antagonist, enkephalin, Deltorphin II, DAMGO, DPDPE, TIPPΨ, G-protein-coupled receptor, oligomerization, MAP kinase