Original Article

Design, synthesis and biological evaluation of N-phenylalkyl-substituted tramadol derivatives as novel μ opioid receptor ligands

Qing Shen, Yuan-yuan Qian, Xue-jun Xu, Wei Li, Jing-gen Liu, Wei Fu
DOI: 10.1038/aps.2014.171


Aim: Tramadol is an atypical opioid analgesic with low potential for tolerance and addiction. However, its opioid activity is much lower than classic opiates such as morphine. To develop novel analgesic and further explore the structure activity relationship (SAR) of tramadol skeleton.
Methods: Based on a three-dimensional (3D) structure superimposition and molecular docking study, we found that M1 (the active metabolite of tramadol) and morphine have common pharmacophore features and similar binding modes at the μ opioid receptor in which the substituents on the nitrogen atom of both compounds faced a common hydrophobic pocket formed by Trp2936.48 and Tyr3267.43. In this study, N-phenethylnormorphine was docked to the μ opioid receptor. It was found that the N-substituted group of N-phenethylnormorphine extended into a hydrophobic pocket formed by Trp2936.48 and Tyr3267.43. This hydrophobic interaction may contribute to the improvement of its opioid activities as compared with morphine. The binding modes of M1, morphine and N-phenethylnormorphine overlapped, indicating that the substituent on the nitrogen atoms of the three compounds may adopt common orientations. A series of N-phenylalkyl derivatives from the tramadol scaffold were designed, synthesized and assayed in order to generate a new type of analgesics.
Results: As a result, compound 5b was identified to be an active candidate from these compounds. Furthermore, the binding modes of 5b and morphine derivatives in the μ opioid receptor were comparatively studied.
Conclusion: Unlike morphine-derived structures in which bulky N-substitution is associated with improved opioid-like activities, there seems to be a different story for tramadol, suggesting the potential difference of SAR between these compounds. A new type of interaction mechanism in tramadol analogue (5b) was discovered, which will help advance potent tramadol-based analgesic design.
Keywords: μ-opioid receptor; tramadol; morphine; molecular docking

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