Affinity, potency, efficacy, selectivity, and molecular modeling of substituted fentanyls at opioid receptors

Amy J. Eshleman, Shanthi Nagarajan, Katherine M. Wolfrum, John F. Reed, Aaron Nilsen, Randy Torralva, Aaron Janowsky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Substituted fentanyls are abused and cause rapid fatal overdose. As their pharmacology is not well characterized, we examined in vitro pharmacology and structure–activity relationships of 22 substituted fentanyls with modifications of the fentanyl propyl group, and conducted in silico receptor/ligand modeling. Affinities for mu, kappa, and delta opioid receptors (MOR, KOR, and DOR, respectively) heterologously expressed in mammalian cells were assessed in agonist radioligand binding assays. At MOR, furanyl fentanyl had higher affinity than fentanyl, while acryl, isobutyryl and cyclopropyl fentanyls had similar affinities. Comparing affinities, thiophene and methoxyacetyl fentanyls had highest selectivity for MOR (2520- and 2730-fold compared to KOR and DOR, respectively). Functional activities were assessed using [35S]GTPγS binding assays. At MOR, furanyl fentanyl had higher potency and 11 substituted fentanyls had similar high potencies compared to fentanyl. Eight compounds were full agonists of MOR and twelve compounds were partial agonists, with efficacies from 8.8% (phenyl fentanyl) to 60.2% (butyryl fentanyl). All efficacious compounds had selective functional potency for MOR. The predicted binding poses of flexible fentanyl and rigid morphine against MOR show partially overlapping binding pockets, with fentanyl maintaining additional interaction with the transmembrane (TM) 2 helix. Subsequent molecular dynamics simulations revealed a predominant fentanyl binding pose involving various TM interactions. The piperidine nitrogen of substituted fentanyls establishes a salt-bridge with the conserved D-1473.32 residue and the propanamide carbonyl group establishes a hydrogen bond with the indole side-chain (–NH) of W-3187.35. The simulation suggests the N-linked phenethyl group may regulate the rotameric switch of W-2936.48. The predicted binding pose, in conjunction with in vitro binding affinity, clarified the molecular basis of the binding/selectivity profile of furanyl fentanyl and other derivatives at the sequence level. In summary, substituted fentanyls with high MOR potencies, selectivities, and efficacies are likely to have abuse and overdose potential. The work presented here is a prototype to investigate fentanyl derivatives and their abuse potential.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number114293
JournalBiochemical Pharmacology
StatePublished - Dec 2020


  • Binding assay
  • Docking
  • Fentanyl
  • Modelling
  • Morphine
  • Mu opioid receptor

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Pharmacology


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