Suppression of Human Natural Killer Cells by Different Classes of Opioids

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


BACKGROUND: The use of regional and other opioid-sparing forms of anesthesia has been associated with a decrease in the recurrence of certain malignancies. Direct suppression of human natural killer cells by opioids has been postulated to explain this observation. However, the effect of different classes of opioids on suppression of natural killer cell cytotoxicity has not been systematically characterized. METHODS: After confirming that freshly isolated natural killer cells from peripheral human blood express opioid receptors, cells were incubated with increasing concentrations of clinically used or receptor-specific opioid agonists. We also evaluated the effect of pretreatment with receptor-specific antagonists or naloxone. Treated natural killer cells were then coincubated with a carboxyfluorescein succinimidyl ester-labeled target tumor cell line, K562. Annexin V staining was used to compare the percent of tumor cell apoptosis in the presence of opioid-pretreated and untreated natural killer cells. Treated samples were compared to untreated samples using Kruskal-Wallis tests with a post hoc Dunn correction. RESULTS: Morphine, methadone, buprenorphine, loperamide, [d-Ala2, N-MePhe4, Gly-ol]-enkephalin, and U-50488 significantly decreased natural killer cell cytotoxicity. When natural killer cells were pretreated with naloxone, cyprodime, and nor-binaltorphimine before exposure to morphine, there was no difference in natural killer cytotoxicity, compared to the amount observed by untreated natural killer cells. Fentanyl, O-desmethyltramadol, and [D-Pen2,D-Pen5] enkephalin did not change natural killer cell cytotoxicity compare to untreated natural killer cells. CONCLUSIONS: Incubation of isolated natural killer cells with certain opioids causes a decrease in activity that is not observed after naloxone pretreatment. Suppression of natural killer cell cytotoxicity was observed with μ- and κ-receptor agonists but not δ-receptor agonists. These data suggest that the effect is mediated by μ- and κ-receptor agonism and that suppression is similar with many clinically used opioids.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1013-1021
Number of pages9
JournalAnesthesia and analgesia
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


Dive into the research topics of 'Suppression of Human Natural Killer Cells by Different Classes of Opioids'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this