Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl and its analogs, have therapeutic efficacy in analgesia and anesthesia. However, their illicit use in the United States has increased and contributed to the number one cause of death for adults 18-50 years old. Fentanyl and the heroin metabolite morphine induce respiratory depression that can be treated with the μ opioid receptor (MOR) antagonist naloxone. With higher or more rapid dosing, fentanyl, more than morphine, causes chest wall rigidity and can also induce rapid onset laryngospasm. Because non-MORs could mediate differing clinical manifestations, we examined the interactions of fentanyl and morphine at recombinant human neurotransmitter transporters, G protein-coupled receptors, and the N-methyl-D-aspartate glutamate receptor. Both drugs were agonists at MOR, κ, and δ opioid receptors. Morphine had little or no affinity at other human receptors and transporters (K i or IC50 value >100 µM). However, fentanyl had K i values of 1407 and 1100 nM at α 1A and α 1B adrenoceptor subtypes, respectively, and K i values of 1049 and 1670 nM at dopamine D4.4 and D1 receptor subtypes, respectively; it also blocked [3H]neurotransmitter uptake by the vesicular monoamine transporter 2 (IC50 = 911 nM). Pharmacokinetic models indicate that these Ki and IC50 values are pharmacologically relevant. Fentanyl had little affinity for other receptors or transporters. Thus, noradrenergic disposition at specific receptor subtypes in relevant organs may play a role in respiratory and cardiothoracic effects of fentanyl. Data suggest that less selective fentanyl receptor pharmacology could play a role in the different clinical effects of morphine compared with fentanyl, including fentanyl-induced deaths after illicit use. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: The synthetic opioid fentanyl induces different clinical effects, including rapid onset muscular rigidity, vocal cord closure, and rapid death, than the heroin metabolite morphine. Our data indicate for the first time that the two drugs have very different effects at recombinant human neurotransmitter receptors and transporters that might explain those clinical differences.
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