Why does low dose morphine augment fentanyl analgesia?

Katherine Elaine Barker, The University of Texas Grad. Sch. of Biomed. Sci. at Houston


Opioids dominate the field of pain management because of their ability to provide analgesia in many medical circumstances. However, side effects including respiratory depression, constipation, tolerance, physical dependence, and the risk of addiction limit their clinical utility. Fear of these side effects results in the under-treatment of acute pain. For many years, research has focused on ways to improve the therapeutic index (the ratio of desirable analgesic effects to undesirable side effects) of opioids. One strategy, combining opioid agonists that bind to different opioid receptor types, may prove successful.^ We discovered that subcutaneous co-administration of a moderately analgesic dose of the mu-opioid receptor (MOR) selective agonist fentanyl (20μg/kg) with subanalgesic doses of the less MOR-specific agonist morphine (100ng/kg-100μg/kg), augmented acute fentanyl analgesia in rats. Parallel [35S]GTPγS binding studies using naïve rat substantia gelatinosa membrane treated with fentanyl (4μM) and morphine (1nM-1pM) demonstrated a 2-fold increase in total G-protein activation. This correlation between morphine-induced augmentation of fentanyl analgesia and G-protein activation led to our proposal that interactions between MORs and DORs underlie opioid-induced augmentation. We discovered that morphine-induced augmentation of fentanyl analgesia and G-protein activity was mediated by DORs. Adding the DOR-selective antagonist naltrindole (200ng/kg, 40nM) at doses that did not alter the analgesic or G-protein activation of fentanyl, blocked increases in analgesia and G-protein activation induced by fentanyl/morphine combinations. Equivalent doses of the MOR-selective antagonist cyprodime (20ng/kg, 4nM) did not block augmentation. Substitution of the DOR-selective agonist SNC80 for morphine yielded similar results, further supporting our conclusion that interactions between MORs and DORs are responsible for morphine-induced augmentation of fentanyl analgesia and G-protein activation. Confocal microscopy of rat substantia gelatinosa showed that changes in the rate of opioid receptor internalization did not account for these effects.^ In conclusion, fentanyl analgesia augmentation by subanalgesic morphine is mediated by increased G-protein activation resulting from functional interactions between MORs and DORs, not changes in MOR internalization. Additional animal and clinical studies are needed to determine whether side effect incidence changes following opioid co-administration. If side effect incidence decreases or remains unchanged, these findings could have important implications for clinical pain treatment. ^

Subject Area

Biology, Neuroscience|Health Sciences, Pharmacology

Recommended Citation

Barker, Katherine Elaine, "Why does low dose morphine augment fentanyl analgesia?" (2009). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI3358123.