In a breakthrough that could prove to be a powerful, life-saving tool against the opioid epidemic, a research team at the University of Houston has developed a vaccine that prevents fentanyl from entering the brain, eliminating the euphoric feelings it produces.
The findings of their study were recently published in the journal Pharmaceutics.
“We believe these findings could have a significant impact on a very serious problem plaguing society for years – opioid misuse,” said the study’s lead author Colin Haile, a research associate professor of psychology at the University of Houston (UH) and a founding member of the UH Drug Discovery Institute.
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Its heroin-like effect makes it popular on illegal drug markets where it’s “often mixed with heroin and/or cocaine as a combination product to increase its euphoric effects.”
Fentanyl is a highly addictive synthetic opioid, so this vaccine not only aims at protecting people inadvertently exposed to it but also at “becoming a relapse prevention agent for people trying to quit using opioids.”
Vaccine targets fentanyl’s ‘high’
The vaccine contains “an adjuvant derived from E. coli named dmLT” developed by collaborators at the Tulane University School of Medicine, which “boosts the immune system’s response to vaccines, a critical component for the effectiveness of anti-addiction vaccines.”
“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,” Professor Haile adds.
UH’s vaccine did not cause any adverse side effects in rats involved in lab studies and “anti-FEN antibodies targeted FEN with no cross-reactions to other opioids,” the study explains.
“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,” said Haile.
Researchers point out that although “Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) is treatable, an estimated 80% of those dependent on the drug suffer a relapse.” The effectiveness of current treatments “depends upon formulation, compliance, access to medications.”
The research team plans “to start manufacturing clinical-grade vaccine in the coming months with clinical trials in humans planned soon.”
The CDC data shows that 71,000 of nearly 108,000 people who died of drug overdoses in 2021 died from fentanyl or fentanyl-related substances. Furthermore, illicit fentanyl overdoses are now the number one cause of death among adults 18-45.
Depending on a person’s size, as the research team explains, “consumption of about 2 milligrams of fentanyl (the size of two grains of rice) is likely to be fatal,” which, in 2021, resulted in illicit fentanyl overdose deaths among teenagers to account for 77% of adolescent overdose deaths.
UH’s release underscores that “fentanyl is an especially dangerous threat because it is often added to street drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine and other opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone/acetaminophen pills, and even to counterfeit benzodiazepines.”
In its first public safety alert in six years, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued a public safety alert in September 2021 about the increase in counterfeit prescription pills that contain fentanyl and methamphetamine.