Minireview: More than just a hammer: ligand "bias" and pharmaceutical discovery

Mol Endocrinol. 2014 Mar;28(3):281-94. doi: 10.1210/me.2013-1314. Epub 2014 Jan 16.


Conventional orthosteric drug development programs targeting G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) have focused on the concepts of agonism and antagonism, in which receptor structure determines the nature of the downstream signal and ligand efficacy determines its intensity. Over the past decade, the emerging paradigms of "pluridimensional efficacy" and "functional selectivity" have revealed that GPCR signaling is not monolithic, and that ligand structure can "bias" signal output by stabilizing active receptor states in different proportions than the native ligand. Biased ligands are novel pharmacologic entities that possess the unique ability to qualitatively change GPCR signaling, in effect creating "new receptors" with distinct efficacy profiles driven by ligand structure. The promise of biased agonism lies in this ability to engender "mixed" effects not attainable using conventional agonists or antagonists, promoting therapeutically beneficial signals while antagonizing deleterious ones. Indeed, arrestin pathway-selective agonists for the type 1 parathyroid hormone and angiotensin AT1 receptors, and G protein pathway-selective agonists for the GPR109A nicotinic acid and μ-opioid receptors, have demonstrated unique, and potentially therapeutic, efficacy in cell-based assays and preclinical animal models. Conversely, activating GPCRs in "unnatural" ways may lead to downstream biological consequences that cannot be predicted from prior knowledge of the actions of the native ligand, especially in the case of ligands that selectively activate as-yet poorly characterized G protein-independent signaling networks mediated via arrestins. Although much needs to be done to realize the clinical potential of functional selectivity, biased GPCR ligands nonetheless appear to be important new additions to the pharmacologic toolbox.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Allosteric Regulation
  • Animals
  • Drug Discovery*
  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • Pharmacology*
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / agonists*
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / physiology
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects*


  • Ligands
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled