The synthetic benzimidazole opioid etazene (which has a 70-times higher analgesic activitythan morphine), a recreational drug, has gained popularity as a novel psychoactive substance (NPS) on the illegal/darknet market; however, no experimental information is available at the molecular level on the binding mechanism and putative binding site of etazene and its metabolites at the µopioid receptor (MOR). In the present study, we investigated the metabolism of etazene in human liver microsomes using ultra-high-performance liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (UHPLC–MS). We also explored the possibilities of MOR activation by etazene and its metabolites by studying their binding mechanisms and interaction profiles at an active-state MOR model via molecular docking, binding free energy calculations, and all-atom molecular dynamics (MD) simulations. The putative metabolites of etazene were also predicted using the ADMET Predictor 10.1. The molecular docking studies and free energy calculations showed that etazene and its metabolites (M1, M2, and M5–M7) exhibited strong predicted binding affinity at MOR and showed overlapped binding orientation with MOR-bound agonist BU72, which was co-crystallized in the MOR X-ray crystal structure (PDB ID: 5C1M). MD also confirmed the stability of the MOR–etazene and MOR–M6 complexes. These results suggest that etazene and its metabolites may act as strong MOR agonists, highlighting the necessity of experimental validation. The insights from this study, such as key interactions between etazene and its metabolites and the MOR, will allow authorities to predict potential analogs and clarify the target–protein interactions associated with this illicit substance, granting advanced or rapid reactions to confiscating or banning potential emerging drugs.
By Krishna Chaturvedi, Isuru Hewamanna, Pankaj Pandey, Washim Khan, Yan-Hong Wang, Amar G. Chittiboyina, Robert J. Doerksen and Murrell Godfrey