Identification of the First Marine-Derived Opioid Receptor “Balanced” Agonist with a Signaling Profile That Resembles the Endorphins

Tyler A. Johnson, Laura Milan-Lobo, Tao Che, Madeline Ferwerda, Eptisam Lambu, Nicole L. McIntosh, Fei Li, Li He, Nicholas Lorig-Roach, Phillip Crews, Jennifer L. Whistler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Opioid therapeutics are excellent analgesics, whose utility is compromised by dependence. Morphine (1) and its clinically relevant derivatives such as OxyContin (2), Vicodin (3), and Dilaudid (4) are “biased” agonists at the μ opioid receptor (OR), wherein they engage G protein signaling but poorly engage β-arrestin and the endocytic machinery. In contrast, endorphins, the endogenous peptide agonists for ORs, are potent analgesics, show reduced liability for tolerance and dependence, and engage both G protein and β-arrestin pathways as “balanced” agonists. We set out to determine if marine-derived alkaloids could serve as novel OR agonist chemotypes with a signaling profile distinct from morphine and more similar to the endorphins. Screening of 96 sponge-derived extracts followed by LC-MS-based purification to pinpoint the active compounds and subsequent evaluation of a mini library of related alkaloids identified two structural classes that modulate the ORs. These included the following: aaptamine (10), 9-demethyl aaptamine (11), demethyl (oxy)-aaptamine (12) with activity at the δ-OR (EC50: 5.1, 4.1, 2.3 μM, respectively) and fascaplysin (17), and 10-bromo fascaplysin (18) with activity at the μ-OR (EC50: 6.3, 4.2 μM respectively). An in vivo evaluation of 10 using δ-KO mice indicated its previously reported antidepressant-like effects are dependent on the δ-OR. Importantly, 17 functioned as a balanced agonist promoting both G protein signaling and β-arrestin recruitment along with receptor endocytosis similar to the endorphins. Collectively these results demonstrate the burgeoning potential for marine natural products to serve as novel lead compounds for therapeutic targets in neuroscience research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)473-485
Number of pages13
JournalACS Chemical Neuroscience
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 15 2017


  • G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR)
  • aaptamine
  • balanced agonism
  • biased agonism
  • dependence
  • endorphins
  • fascaplysin
  • opioid
  • signaling profile
  • tolerance


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