Role of prolactin in the modulation of NK and LAK cell activity after short- or long-term morphine administration in neoplastic patients

M. Provinciali, G. Di Stefano, S. Stronati, W. Raffaeli, G. Pari, N. Fabris

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In a previous work we demonstrated that chronic in vivo antalgic therapy of cancer patients with morphine reduced the endogenous cytotoxic activity of natural killer (NK) cells, while increasing the development of lymphokine activated killer (LAK) cell cytotoxicity. In order to investigate the mechanisms by which morphine affects NK and LAK cell function further, we evaluated the modulation exerted by short- or long-term morphine administration on either NK/LAK cell cytotoxicities or plasma levels of prolactin (PRL) and other immunomodulating neurohormones. An intravenous morphine injection (10 mg) significantly increased the plasma levels of PRL, reduced the cytotoxic activity of NK cells, and increased the development of LAK cell activity 30 min after drug injection in neoplastic patients. The administration of bromocriptine before the injection of morphine prevented both PRL augmentation and the increase in LAK cell activation, although it did not prevent the inhibition of NK cytotoxicity. The chronic oral administration of morphine (90 ± 30 mg/day for 1 month) also resulted in higher PRL levels; the NK and LAK cell activities were, respectively, lower than or higher than those found in neoplastic patients untreated with morphine. The plasma levels of thyrotropin (TSH), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol were not significantly modified in either short- or long-term experiments. The absolute number and the percentages of lymphocyte populations, as well as the percentage of IL-2 receptors, were not modified after short-term morphine administration whereas little changes of T lymphocyte populations and NK cell number were observed after oral treatment with morphine. In vitro morphine did not affect the development of LAK cell activity. In conclusion, our findings indicate that morphine reduces NK cytotoxicity and increases the development of LAK cell cytotoxicity after short- and long-term administration. The effect of morphine on LAK cell activation but not on NK cell reduction is related to the modulation of PRL levels determined by the opioid drug.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)577-586
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal of Immunopharmacology
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - Oct 1996


  • Cancer
  • Lymphokine activated killer cells
  • Morphine
  • Natural killer cells
  • Neuroimmunomodulation
  • Prolactin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology
  • Pharmacology


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