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Papers of the Week

Papers: 1 May 2021 - 7 May 2021

Human Studies, Pharmacology/Drug Development



Front Med (Lausanne)


Endogenous Opioid Levels Do Not Correlate With Itch Intensity and Therapeutic Interventions in Hepatic Pruritus.


Düll MM, Wolf K, Vetter M, Dietrich P, Neurath MF, Kremer AE
Front Med (Lausanne). 2021; 8:641163.
PMID: 33937284.


Chronic pruritus affects up to 70% of patients with immune-mediated hepatobiliary disorders. Antagonists of the μ-opioid receptor (MOR) and agonists of the κ-opioid receptor (KOR) are used to treat hepatic itch, albeit with limited success. An imbalance between ligands of MOR and KOR receptors has recently been suggested as a potential mechanism of hepatic pruritus. In this study, we therefore investigated systemic levels of important endogenous opioids such as β-endorphin, dynorphin A, Leu- and Met-enkephalin in plasma of a large cohort of well-characterized patients with immune-mediated cholestatic disorders, including patients with liver cirrhosis, and during effective anti-pruritic therapy. Plasma samples and clinical data were prospectively collected from well-characterized patients with primary/secondary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC/SSC), primary biliary cholangitis (PBC) and overlap syndromes suffering from pruritus ( = 29) and age-, gender- and disease-matched controls without pruritus ( = 27) as well as healthy controls ( = 20). General laboratory testing for hepatobiliary and renal function was performed. Levels of β-endorphin, dynorphin A, Leu- and Met-enkephalin were quantified in plasma by ELISA. Intensity of pruritus over the last week was evaluated using a visual analog scale (VAS, 0-10). PBC and PSC patients with or without pruritus did neither differ in disease entity, disease stage, nor in the presence of cirrhosis. While both dynorphin A and β-endorphin concentrations were lower in pruritic patients compared to those without pruritus and healthy controls, the MOR/KOR ligand ratio was unaltered. No significant differences were observed for Leu- and Met-enkephalin concentrations. Opioid levels correlated with neither itch intensity nor stage of disease. Cirrhotic patients displayed higher concentrations of MOR agonist Leu-enkephalin and KOR agonist dynorphin A. Endogenous opioid levels remained largely unchanged after successful treatment with the potent anti-pruritic drugs rifampicin and bezafibrate. Endogenous opioid levels and the MOR/KOR ligand ratio neither correlate with itch intensity nor differentiate pruritic from non-pruritic patients with immune-mediated liver diseases. Thus, endogenous opioids may modulate signaling pathways involved in hepatic pruritus, but are unlikely to represent the major pruritogens in liver disease.