Researchers report they have created a vaccine to fight fentanyl addiction, in a potential breakthrough in the opioid epidemic.
The shot would block the ability of fentanyl to enter the brain and cause the “high” that users crave. It could be used to prevent relapses in people trying to quit opioids, once it gets through clinical trials, the scientists said.
“We believe these findings could have a significant impact on a very serious problem plaguing society for years — opioid misuse,” said study author Colin Haile, a research associate professor of psychology at the University of Houston and the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics.
"Our vaccine is able to generate anti-fentanyl antibodies that bind to the consumed fentanyl and prevent it from entering the brain, allowing it to be eliminated out of the body via the kidneys. Thus, the individual will not feel the euphoric effects and can ‘get back on the wagon' to sobriety," Haile explained in a university news release.
The team has tested the drug on animals but plans to start manufacturing a clinical-grade vaccine in the coming months and to start human trials. However, research in animals does not always pan out in humans.
More than 150 people die every day in the United States from overdoses of synthetic opioids including fentanyl. About 80% of people who try to quit suffer a relapse.
Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Even a tiny amount, 2 milligrams, is likely to cause death.
Scientists created the vaccine using a derivative from E. coli bacteria, to help boost immune response to the vaccine.
“The anti-fentanyl antibodies were specific to fentanyl and a fentanyl derivative, and did not cross-react with other opioids, such as morphine. That means a vaccinated person would still be able to be treated for pain relief with other opioids,” Haile said.
Even people who don't ordinarily consume fentanyl but who use other drugs sometimes experience fentanyl overdoses because the drug is often added to street drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, counterfeit benzodiazepines like Xanax, and other opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.
Opioid use disorder is treated with a mix of medications, including methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone, the researchers noted.
This new vaccine could be a “game-changer,” said Therese Kosten, director of the developmental, cognitive & behavioral neuroscience program at the University of Houston (UH).
“Fentanyl use and overdose is a particular treatment challenge that is not adequately addressed with current medications because of its pharmacodynamics, and managing acute overdose with the short-acting naloxone is not appropriately effective as multiple doses of naloxone are often needed to reverse fentanyl's fatal effects,” said Kosten, who was senior author of the study.
Others on the research team were Greg Cuny, a professor of drug discovery at the UH College of Pharmacy and researchers from Baylor College of Medicine and the Michael E. DeBakey Veteran's Affairs Medical Center, both also in Houston.
The findings were published online recently in the journal Pharmaceutics.
Funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Defense through the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Disorders Program managed by RTI International's Pharmacotherapies for Alcohol and Substance Use Disorders Alliance.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on preventing opioid use disorder.
SOURCE: University of Houston, news release, Nov. 14, 2022