Game Changer for Opioid Crisis? Fentanyl Vaccine Shows Promise

Researchers have developed a vaccine that could block fentanyl’s ability to enter the brain, thus eliminating the drug’s “high.”

Researchers say this discovery could have major implications for the nation’s opioid epidemic by becoming a relapse prevention agent for people trying to quit using fentanyl.

A study in rats conducted by a research team led by the University of Houston was published in the journal Pharmaceutics.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid approximately 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Last year alone, 71,238 people in the US died from opioid overdose, primarily fentanyl.

While research reveals Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) is treatable, an estimated 80% of those dependent on the drug suffer a relapse.

“We believe these findings could have a significant impact on a very serious problem plaguing society for years – opioid misuse. 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,” the study’s lead author Colin Haile, a research associate professor of psychology at UH and the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics (TIMES), and a founding member of the UH Drug Discovery Institute, said in a press release.

In the study, the vaccine did not show any adverse side effects. Researchers say they also expect minimal side effects in clinical trials because the two components of the vaccine’s formulation (CRM and dmLT) are already in other vaccines on the market or shown to be safe and effective in multiple human clinical trials.

The research team plans to start manufacturing clinical-grade vaccine in the coming months, with clinical trials in humans planned soon.

Fentanyl is prescribed to treat people in severe pain, such as cancer or terminally ill patients, or people recovering from trauma. However, as a Schedule II prescription drug, it has a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence.

Illegally made and sold fentanyl is even more dangerous, as it is often mixed with other street drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, to make it more potent.

Researchers say 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.

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