Preclinical Studies on Nalfurafine (TRK-820), a Clinically Used KOR Agonist

Handb Exp Pharmacol. 2022;271:137-162. doi: 10.1007/164_2021_443.


Nalfurafine has been used clinically in Japan for treatment of itch in kidney dialysis patients and in patients with chronic liver diseases. A one-year post-marketing study showed nalfurafine to be safe and efficacious without producing side effects of typical KOR agonists such as anhedonia and psychotomimesis. In this chapter, we summarize in vitro characterization and in vivo preclinical studies on nalfurafine. In vitro, nalfurafine is a highly potent and moderately selective KOR full agonist; however, whether it is a biased KOR agonist is a matter of debate. In animals, nalfurafine produced anti-pruritic effects in a dose range lower than that caused side effects, including conditioned place aversion (CPA), hypolocomotion, motor incoordination, consistent with the human data. In addition, nalfurafine showed antinociceptive effects in several pain models at doses that did not cause the side effects mentioned above. It appears to be effective against inflammatory pain and mechanical pain, but less so against thermal pain, particularly high-intensity thermal pain. U50,488H and nalfurafine differentially modulated several signaling pathways in a brain region-specific manners. Notably, U50,488H, but not nalfurafine, activated the mTOR pathway, which contributed to U50,488H-induced CPA. Because of its lack of side effects associated with typical KOR agonists, nalfurafine has been investigated as a combination therapy with an MOR ligand for pain treatment and for its effects on opioid use disorder and alcohol use disorder, and results indicate potential usefulness for these indications. Thus, although in vitro data regarding uniqueness of nalfurafine in terms of signaling at the KOR are somewhat equivocal, in vivo results support the assertion that nalfurafine is an atypical KOR agonist with a significantly improved side-effect profile relative to typical KOR agonists.

Keywords: Abuse deterrence; Alcohol use disorder; Analgesia; Antipruritic effect; Aversion; Opioid use disorder.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Morphinans* / pharmacology
  • Morphinans* / therapeutic use
  • Pain
  • Receptors, Opioid, kappa
  • Spiro Compounds* / pharmacology


  • Morphinans
  • Receptors, Opioid, kappa
  • Spiro Compounds
  • TRK 820