K2 or Spice is an emerging drug of abuse that contains synthetic cannabinoids, including JWH-018 and JWH-073. Recent reports indicate that monohydroxylated metabolites of JWH-018 and JWH-073 retain high affinity and activity at cannabinoid type-1 receptors (CB1Rs), potentially contributing to the enhanced toxicity of K2 compared to marijuana. Since the parent compounds also bind to cannabinoid type-2 receptors (CB2Rs), this study investigated the affinity and intrinsic activity of JWH-018, JWH-073 and several monohydroxylated metabolites at human CB2Rs (hCB2Rs). The affinity of cannabinoids for hCB2Rs was determined by competition binding studies employing CHO-hCB2 membranes. Intrinsic activity of compounds was assessed by G-protein activation and adenylyl cyclase (AC)-inhibition in CHO-hCB2 cells. JWH-073, JWH-018 and several of their human metabolites exhibit nanomolar affinity and act as potent agonists at hCB2Rs. Furthermore, a major omega hydroxyl metabolite of JWH-073 (JWH-073-M5) binds to CB2Rs with 10-fold less affinity than the parent molecule, but unexpectedly, is equipotent in regulating AC-activity when compared to the parent molecule. Finally, when compared to CP-55,940 and Δ(9)-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ(9)-THC), JWH-018, JWH-018-M5 and JWH-073-M5 require significantly less CB2R occupancy to produce similar levels of AC-inhibition, indicating that these compounds may more efficiently couple CB2Rs to AC than the well characterized cannabinoid agonists examined. These results indicate that JWH-018, JWH-073 and several major human metabolites of these compounds exhibit high affinity and demonstrate distinctive signaling properties at CB2Rs. Therefore, future studies examining pharmacological and toxicological properties of synthetic cannabinoids present in K2 products should consider potential actions of these drugs at both CB1 and CB2Rs.
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