Opioid drugs play important roles in the clinical management of pain, as well as in the development and treatment of drug abuse. The mu opioid receptor is the primary site of action for the most commonly used opioids, including morphine, heroin, fentanyl, and methadone. By sequencing DNA from 113 former heroin addicts in methadone maintenance and 39 individuals with no history of drug or alcohol abuse or dependence, we have identified five different single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in the coding region of the mu opioid receptor gene. The most prevalent SNP is a nucleotide substitution at position 118 (A118G), predicting an amino acid change at a putative N-glycosylation site. This SNP displays an allelic frequency of approximately 10% in our study population. Significant differences in allele distribution were observed among ethnic groups studied. The variant receptor resulting from the A118G SNP did not show altered binding affinities for most opioid peptides and alkaloids tested. However, the A118G variant receptor binds beta-endorphin, an endogenous opioid that activates the mu opioid receptor, approximately three times more tightly than the most common allelic form of the receptor. Furthermore, beta-endorphin is approximately three times more potent at the A118G variant receptor than at the most common allelic form in agonist-induced activation of G protein-coupled potassium channels. These results show that SNPs in the mu opioid receptor gene can alter binding and signal transduction in the resulting receptor and may have implications for normal physiology, therapeutics, and vulnerability to develop or protection from diverse diseases including the addictive diseases.
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