Potential for Kappa-Opioid Receptor Agonists to Engineer Nonaddictive Analgesics: A Narrative Review

Shane W. Kaski, Allison N. White, Joshua D. Gross, David P. Siderovski

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


A serious adverse effect of prescription opioid analgesics is addiction, both to these analgesics and to illicit drugs like heroin that also activate the µ-opioid receptor (MOR). Opioid use disorder (OUD) and opioid overdose deaths represent a current American health crisis, and the prescription of opioid analgesics has contributed significantly to this crisis. While prescription opioids are highly effective analgesics, there currently exists no facile way to use them for extended periods without the risk of addiction. If addiction caused by MOR-targeting analgesics could be blocked by blending in a new "antiaddiction"ingredient that does not diminish analgesia and does not introduce its own therapeutically limiting side effects, then continued clinical use of prescription opioids for treating pain could be maintained (or even enhanced) instead of curtailed. In this narrative review, we contextualize this hypothesis, first with a brief overview of the current American opioid addiction crisis. The neurobiology of 2 key receptors in OUD development, MOR and the κ-opioid receptor (KOR), is then discussed to highlight the neuroanatomical features and circuitry in which signal transduction from these receptors lie in opposition - creating opportunities for pharmacological intervention in curtailing the addictive potential of MOR agonism. Prior findings with mixed MOR/KOR agonists are considered before exploring new potential avenues such as biased KOR agonists. New preclinical data are highlighted, demonstrating that the G protein-biased KOR agonist nalfurafine reduces the rewarding properties of MOR-targeting analgesics and enhances MOR-targeting analgesic-induced antinociception. Finally, we discuss the recent discovery that a regulator of G protein signaling (namely, RGS12) is a key component of signaling bias at KOR, presenting another drug discovery target toward identifying a single agent or adjuvant to be added to traditional opioid analgesics that could reduce or eliminate the addictive potential of the latter drug.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)406-419
Number of pages14
JournalAnesthesia and analgesia
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2021


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