Two decades have passed since the peptide, nociceptin/orphanin FQ (N/OFQ), and its cognate (NOP) receptor were discovered. Although NOP receptor activation causes a similar pattern of intracellular actions as mu-opioid (MOP) receptors, NOP receptor-mediated pain modulation in rodents are more complicated than MOP receptor activation. This review highlights the functional evidence of spinal, supraspinal, and systemic actions of NOP receptor agonists for regulating pain. In rodents, effects of the N/OFQ-NOP receptor system in spinal and supraspinal sites for modulating pain are bidirectional depending on the doses, assays, and pain modalities. The net effect of systemically administered NOP receptor agonists may depend on relative contribution of spinal and supraspinal actions of the N/OFQ-NOP receptor signaling in rodents under different pain states. In stark contrast, NOP receptor agonists produce only antinociception and antihypersensitivity in spinal and supraspinal regions of nonhuman primates regardless of doses and assays. More importantly, NOP receptor agonists and a few bifunctional NOP/MOP receptor agonists do not exhibit reinforcing effects (abuse liability), respiratory depression, itch pruritus, nor do they delay the gastrointestinal transit function (constipation) in nonhuman primates. Depending upon their intrinsic efficacies for activating NOP and MOP receptors, bifunctional NOP/MOP receptor agonists warrant additional investigation in primates regarding their side effect profiles. Nevertheless, NOP receptor-related agonists display a much wider therapeutic window as compared to that of MOP receptor agonists in primates. Both selective NOP receptor agonists and bifunctional NOP/MOP receptor agonists hold great potential as effective and safe analgesics without typical opioid-associated side effects in humans.
Keywords: Analgesics; Bifunctional ligands; NOP receptor; Neuropathic pain; Opioids; Primate; Rodent; Spinal cord; Supraspinal regions; Translational research.
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