The mu opioid receptor (MOR) is the primary target for analgesia of endogenous opioid peptides, alkaloids, synthetic small molecules with diverse scaffolds, and peptidomimetics. Peptide-based opioids are viewed as potential analgesics with reduced side effects and have received constant scientific interest over the years. This study focuses on three potent peptide and peptidomimetic MOR agonists, DALDA, [Dmt1]DALDA, and KGOP01, and the prototypical peptide MOR agonist DAMGO. We present the first molecular modeling study and structure–activity relationships aided by in vitro assays and molecular docking of the opioid peptide analogues, in order to gain insight into their mode of binding to the MOR. In vitro binding and functional assays revealed the same rank order with KGOP01 > [Dmt1]DALDA > DAMGO > DALDA for both binding and MOR activation. Using molecular docking at the MOR and three-dimensional interaction pattern analysis, we have rationalized the experimental outcomes and highlighted key amino acid residues responsible for agonist binding to the MOR. The Dmt (2′,6′-dimethyl-L-Tyr) moiety of [Dmt1]DALDA and KGOP01 was found to represent the driving force for their high potency and agonist activity at the MOR. These findings contribute to a deeper understanding of MOR function and flexible peptide ligand–MOR interactions, that are of significant relevance for the future design of opioid peptide-based analgesics.
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