Brain Protection Concept

Fentanyl Vaccine Breakthrough – Potential ‘Game Changer’ for the Opioid Epidemic

Researchers report the breakthrough discovery of a new vaccine that targets the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl. It can block fentanyl’s ability to enter the brain, eliminating the drug’s “high”.

A study suggests that a new vaccine could prevent deadly opioids from entering the brain.

A new vaccine has been developed that targets the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl which could block its ability to enter the brain, eliminating the drug’s “high”. This groundbreaking discovery could have major implications for the nation’s opioid epidemic by becoming a relapse prevention agent for people trying to stop using opioids. While research reveals that opioid use disorder (OUD) is treatable, an estimated 80% of people addicted to the drug suffer a relapse. The vaccine was developed by a research team led by the University of Houston.

Recently published in the journal Pharmacy, the results couldn’t be more timely or more requested: more than 150 people die every day from overdoses of synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Consuming about 2 milligrams of fentanyl (the size of two grains of rice) is likely to be fatal depending on a person’s size.

Colin Haile

Colin Haile, associate research professor of psychology at the University of Houston and the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics (TIMES), and founding member of the UH Drug Discovery Institute. Haile reports a breakthrough fentanyl vaccine that could be a game-changer in opioid addiction. Credit: University of Houston

“We believe these findings could have a significant impact on a very serious problem that has plagued society for years – opioid abuse. Our vaccine is capable of generating anti-fentanyl antibodies that bind to fentanyl consumed and l ‘block it from entering the brain, allowing it to be eliminated out of the body through the kidneys, so the individual won’t experience the euphoric effects and can “get back on the path to sobriety,” says the lead author of the study, Colin Haile, associate research professor of psychology at uh and the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics (TIMES), and founding member of the uh Institute for Drug Discovery.

In another positive finding, the vaccine caused no adverse side effects in immunized rats involved in laboratory studies. The team plans to begin manufacturing a clinical-grade vaccine in the coming months with human clinical trials expected soon.

Fentanyl is a particularly dangerous threat because it is often added to street drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine and other opioids, like oxycodone and hydrocodone/acetaminophen pills, and even counterfeit benzodiazepines like Xanax. These counterfeit drugs containing fentanyl are increasing the number of fentanyl overdoses in people who do not usually use opioids.

Therese Kosten and Colin Haile

In the lab: Therese Kosten, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Developmental, Cognitive and Behavioral Neurosciences Program and Colin Haile, Associate Research Professor of Psychology and at the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics (TIMES), and founding member of the Institute of UH drug discovery. Credit: University of Houston

“Anti-fentanyl antibodies were specific to fentanyl and a fentanyl derivative and did not cross-react with other opioids, such as morphine. This means a vaccinated person could still be treated for pain relief with other opioids,” Haile said.

The vaccine tested contains an adjuvant derived from E. coli named dmLT. An adjuvant molecule strengthens the immune system’s response to vaccines, an essential element for the effectiveness of anti-addiction vaccines. The adjuvant was developed by collaborators at Tulane University School of Medicine and proved vital to the effectiveness of the vaccine. The team also includes Greg Cuny, Joseph P. & Shirley Shipman Buckley Endowed Professor of Drug Discovery at the uh College of Pharmacy with researchers from Baylor College of Medicine and the Michael E. DeBakey Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center.

Current treatments for TUO are methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, and their effectiveness depends on formulation, compliance, access to medications, and the specific opioid misused.

Therese Kosten, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Developmental, Cognitive and Behavioral Neurosciences Program at uhcalls the new vaccine a potential “game changer”.

“Fentanyl use and overdose poses a particular therapeutic challenge that is not adequately addressed with current medications due to its pharmacodynamics and the management of acute overdose with the short-acting naloxone n is not effective enough because multiple doses of naloxone are often needed to reverse the fatal effects of fentanyl,” said Kosten, lead author of the study.

Reference: “Immunoconjugate Vaccine Alters Distribution and Reduces Antinociceptive, Behavioral, and Physiological Effects of Fentanyl in Male and Female Rats” by Colin N. Haile, Miah D. Baker, Sergio A. Sanchez, Carlos A. Lopez Arteaga, Anantha L. Duddupudi, Gregory D. Cuny, Elizabeth B. Norton, Thomas R. Kosten and Therese A. Kosten, October 26, 2022, Pharmacy.
DOI: 10.3390/pharmaceutics14112290

The study was funded by the Department of Defense through the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Disorders Program run by RTI’s Drug Therapy Alliance for Alcohol and Substance Abuse Disorders International, which funded Haile’s lab for several years to develop the fentanyl vaccine.

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