Endogenous morphine/nitric oxide-coupled regulation of cellular physiology and gene expression: implications for cancer biology.
Opioid drugs, including morphine, are largely used as pain control in cancer patients at different stages of neoplastic growth and progression. Therefore, the possible influence of these drugs on host immunity appears to be of considerable interest. We have examined in vitro the effect of morphine on the generation of human cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) against HTLV-I induced T-cell leukemia cells (MT-2 line). The results show that the drug, at graded concentrations (from 3 pg/ml to 32 microg/ml), that include those detectable in treated patients, enhances CTL activity whereas natural killer cell activity was unaffected. The enhancing effect is particularly evident when morphine was present at the onset of lymphocyte/MT-2 co-culture. On the contrary, the drug was ineffective when added on the last day of co-culture, thus indicating that morphine operates during the generation phase of CTL, but not on mature CTL. Flow cytometric analysis of intracellular cytokine expression showed that morphine increases the percentage of interferon gamma-producing CD8+ T cells in co-culture assay. Collectively, these results suggest that in our experimental model morphine enhances CTL responses by directly affecting the induction phase of T-dependent cell-mediated immunity.