Our observations that opioid peptides have direct effects on islet insulin secretion and liver glucose production prompted a search for endogenous opiates and their receptors in these peripheral tissues. Mu-, delta- and kappa-receptor-active opiates were demonstrated in brain, pancreas and liver extracts by displacement studies using selective ligands for the three opiate receptor subtypes [(3H][D-Ala2,MePhe4,Gly5-ol]enkephalin, [3H][D-Ala2,D-Leu5]enkephalin and [3H]dynorphin respectively). Receptor-active opiates in brain extracts exhibited a stronger preference for delta-opiate-receptor sites than for mu and kappa sites. Pancreatic extract opiates demonstrated a similar activity at mu and delta sites, but substantially less at kappa sites. Liver extracts displayed similar selectivity for all three sites. The affinities of the receptor-active opiates for mu-, delta- and kappa-receptor subtypes displayed a rank order of potency: brain much greater than pancreas greater than liver. Total immunoreactive beta-endorphin and [Met5]enkephalin levels in liver and hepatocytes were greater than those in brain. Immunoreactive [Met5]enkephalin levels in pancreas were similar to, but beta-endorphin levels were substantially higher than, those in brain. Delta and kappa opiate-binding sites of high affinity were identified in crude membrane preparations of islets of Langerhans, but no specific opiate-binding sites could be demonstrated in liver membrane preparations. Immunoreactive dynorphin and beta-endorphin were demonstrated by immunogold labelling in rat pancreatic islet cells. No positive staining of liver sections for opioids was observed. These results suggest that the tissue content of opiate-receptor-active compounds in the pancreas and the liver is very significant and could contribute to the regulation of normal blood glucose levels.

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