Pseudomonas aeruginosa virulence expression is directly activated by morphine and is capable of causing lethal gut-derived sepsis in mice during chronic morphine administration

Ann Surg. 2012 Feb;255(2):386-93. doi: 10.1097/SLA.0b013e3182331870.


Objective: This study was designed to examine the effect of morphine administration on the intestinal mucus barrier and determine its direct effect on the virulence and lethality of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, one of the most frequent pathogens to colonize the gut of critically ill patients.

Background data: Surgical injury is associated with significant exposure of host tissues to morphine from both endogenous release and its use as a potent analgesic agent. Morphine use in surgical patients exposed to extreme physiologic stress is well established to result in increased infection risk. Although morphine is a known immunosuppressant, whether it directly induces virulence expression and lethality in microbes that colonize the human gut remains unknown.

Methods: Mice were implanted with a slow release morphine or placebo pellet with and without intestinal inoculation of P. aeruginosa created by direct cecal injection. Mucus production and epithelial integrity was assessed in cecal tissue via Alcian blue staining and histologic analysis. In vivo and in vitro P. aeruginosa virulence expression was examined using reporter strains tagged to the epithelial barrier disrupting protein PA-I lectin. P. aeruginosa chemotaxis toward morphine was also assayed in vitro. Finally, the direct effect of morphine to induce PA-I lectin expression was determined in the absence and presence of methylnaltrexone, a μ opioid receptor antagonist.

Results: Mice intestinally inoculated with P. aeruginosa and implanted with a morphine pellet demonstrated significant suppression of intestinal mucus, disrupted intestinal epithelium, and enhanced mortality; whereas exposure of mice to either systemic morphine or intestinal P. aeruginosa alone enhanced intestinal mucus without mortality, suggesting a shift in P. aeruginosa during morphine exposure to a mucus suppressing, barrier disrupting, and lethal phenotype. Direct exposure of P. aeruginosa to morphine in vitro confirmed that morphine can transform P. aeruginosa to a more virulent phenotype that is attenuated in part by methylnaltrexone.

Conclusions: Morphine administration shifts intestinal P. aeruginosa to express a virulent phenotype and may play a role in its ability to causes lethal gut-derived sepsis in a susceptible host.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adhesins, Bacterial / metabolism*
  • Analgesics, Opioid / administration & dosage
  • Analgesics, Opioid / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Chemotaxis
  • Intestinal Mucosa / microbiology*
  • Intestinal Mucosa / physiopathology
  • Lectins / metabolism*
  • Mice
  • Morphine / administration & dosage
  • Morphine / pharmacology*
  • Pseudomonas Infections / microbiology*
  • Pseudomonas Infections / mortality
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa / drug effects*
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa / metabolism
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa / pathogenicity
  • Random Allocation
  • Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Sepsis / microbiology*
  • Sepsis / mortality
  • Virulence / drug effects
  • Virulence Factors / metabolism


  • Adhesins, Bacterial
  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Lectins
  • Virulence Factors
  • adhesin, Pseudomonas
  • Morphine