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Papers of the Week

2021 Jan 15

J Chem Inf Model

Structural Assessment of Agonist Efficacy in the μ-Opioid Receptor: Morphine and Fentanyl Elicit Different Activation Patterns.


Over the past two decades, the opioid epidemic in the United States and Canada has evidenced the need for a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms of medications used to fight pain. Morphine and fentanyl are widely used in opiate-mediated analgesia for the treatment of chronic pain. These compounds target the μ-opioid receptor (MOR), a class A G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR). In light of described higher efficacy of fentanyl with respect to morphine, we have performed independent μs-length unbiased molecular dynamics (MD) simulations of MOR complexes with each of these ligands, including the MOR antagonist naltrexone as a negative control. Consequently, MD simulations totaling 58 μs have been conducted to elucidate at the atomic level ligand-specific receptor activity and signal transmission in the MOR. In particular, we have identified stable binding poses of morphine and fentanyl, which interact differently with the MOR. Different ligand-receptor interaction landscapes directly induce sidechain conformational changes of orthosteric pocket residues: Asp149, Tyr150, Gln126, and Lys235. The induced conformations determine Asp149-Tyr328 sidechain-sidechain interactions and Trp295-Ala242 sidechain-backbone H-bond formations, as well as Met153 conformational changes. In addition to differences in ligand binding, different intracellular receptor conformational changes are observed as morphine preferentially activates transmembrane (TM) helices: TM3 and TM5, while fentanyl preferentially activates TM6 and TM7. As conformational changes in TM6 and TM7 are widely described as being the most crucial aspect in GPCR activation, this may contribute to the greater efficacy of fentanyl over morphine. These computationally observed functional differences between fentanyl and morphine may provide new avenues for the design of safer but not weaker opioid drugs because it is desirable to increase the safety of medicines without sacrificing their efficacy.