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Stabilization of morphine tolerance with long-term dosing: Association with selective upregulation of mu-opioid receptor splice variant mRNAs

Xu, Jin, Faskowitz, Andrew J., Rossi, Grace C., Xu, Mingming, Lu, Zhigang, Pan, Ying-Xian, Pasternak, Gavril W.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2015 v.112 no.1 pp. 279-284
gene expression regulation, messenger RNA, morphine, neoplasms, pain, patients
Chronic morphine administration is associated with the development of tolerance, both clinically and in animal models. Many assume that tolerance is a continually progressive response to chronic opioid dosing. However, clinicians have long appreciated the ability to manage cancer pain in patients for months on stable opioid doses, implying that extended dosing may eventually result in a steady state in which the degree of tolerance remains constant despite the continued administration of a fixed morphine dose. Preclinical animal studies have used short-term paradigms, typically a week or less, whereas the clinical experience is based upon months of treatment. Chronic administration of different fixed morphine doses produced a progressive increase in the ED ₅₀ that peaked at 3 wk in mice, consistent with prior results at shorter times. Continued morphine dosing beyond 3 wk revealed stabilization of the level of tolerance for up to 6 wk with no further increase in the ED ₅₀. The degree of tolerance at all time points was dependent upon the dose of morphine. The mRNA levels for the various mu opioid receptor splice variants were assessed to determine whether stabilization of morphine tolerance was associated with changes in their levels. After 6 wk of treatment, mRNA levels of the variants increased as much as 300-fold for selected variants in specific brain regions. These findings reconcile preclinical and clinical observations regarding the development of morphine tolerance.