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 mu opioid receptors, a number of studies have shown that delta 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 mu and delta receptors could account for the cross-modulation previously observed between these two receptors. We find that co-expression of mu and delta receptors in heterologous cells followed by selective immunoprecipitation results in the isolation of mu-delta heterodimers. Treatment of these cells with extremely low doses of certain delta-selective ligands results in a significant increase in the binding of a mu receptor agonist. Similarly, treatment with mu-selective ligands results in a significant increase in the binding of a delta receptor agonist. This robust increase is also seen in SKNSH cells that endogenously express both mu and delta receptors. Furthermore, we find that a delta receptor antagonist enhances both the potency and efficacy of the mu receptor signaling; likewise a mu antagonist enhances the potency and efficacy of the delta receptor signaling. A combination of agonists (mu and delta receptor selective) also synergistically binds and potentiates signaling by activating the mu-delta 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.
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