Insights into the function of opioid receptors from molecular dynamics simulations of available crystal structures

Br J Pharmacol. 2018 Jul;175(14):2834-2845. doi: 10.1111/bph.13774. Epub 2017 Apr 12.


The opioid receptors are key targets in the treatment of acute and chronic pain, and the development of novel analgesics with reduced side effects is crucial in the search for more effective medications. The crystal structures of opioid receptors have provided a wealth of knowledge on many aspects of opioid receptor pharmacology and function, including ligand binding poses, location of the sodium allosteric binding site, conformational changes associated with activation and putative dimeric interfaces. These crystal structures also offer a starting point for molecular dynamics (MD) simulations to capture one aspect of drug design that static structures cannot resolve, namely protein dynamics. With the increase in computing power, MD simulations of crystal structures have become an influential tool in understanding the function of GPCRs in general. Here, we discuss lessons learned from MD simulations of opioid receptor crystal structures with reference to (i) the binding pathway of sodium to its crystallographic allosteric site, (ii) the dynamics of ligand-receptor and receptor-receptor interactions, both at the ligand- and G protein-binding sites, (iii) the binding pathway and binding pose of novel ligands, and (iv) opioid receptor oligomerization.

Linked articles: This article is part of a themed section on Emerging Areas of Opioid Pharmacology. To view the other articles in this section visit

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation
  • Protein Conformation
  • Receptors, Opioid / chemistry
  • Receptors, Opioid / metabolism*


  • Receptors, Opioid