Opioid analgesics are effective pain therapeutics but they cause various adverse effects and addiction. For safer pain therapy, biased opioid agonists selectively target distinct μ opioid receptor (MOR) conformations, while the potential of biased opioid antagonists has been neglected. Agonists convert a dormant receptor form (MOR-μ) to a ligand-free active form (MOR-μ*), which mediates MOR signaling. Moreover, MOR-μ converts spontaneously to MOR-μ* (basal signaling). Persistent upregulation of MOR-μ* has been invoked as a hallmark of opioid dependence. Contrasting interactions with both MOR-μ and MOR-μ* can account for distinct pharmacological characteristics of inverse agonists (naltrexone), neutral antagonists (6β-naltrexol), and mixed opioid agonist-antagonists (buprenorphine). Upon binding to MOR-μ*, naltrexone but not 6β-naltrexol suppresses MOR-μ*signaling. Naltrexone blocks opioid analgesia non-competitively at MOR-μ*with high potency, whereas 6β-naltrexol must compete with agonists at MOR-μ, accounting for ~100-fold lower in vivo potency. Buprenorphine’s bell-shaped dose–response curve may also result from opposing effects on MOR-μ and MOR-μ*. In contrast, we find that 6β-naltrexol potently prevents dependence, below doses affecting analgesia or causing withdrawal, possibly binding to MOR conformations relevant to opioid dependence. We propose that 6β-naltrexol is a biased opioid antagonist modulating opioid dependence at low doses, opening novel avenues for opioid pain therapy and use management.
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