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Researchers may have discovered a breakthrough vaccine for fentanyl—the drug at the center of the opioid crisis

November 16, 2022, 8:40 PM UTC
Synthetic opioid overdoses lead to over 150 deaths every day.
Icy Macload—Getty Images

A group of researchers found a potential vaccine to block fentanyl from entering the brain. 

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, was introduced as a pain management remedy in the 60s; but overdoses on the opioid have increased dramatically in recent years. Deaths from synthetic opioids, not including methadone, increased by over 50% between 2019 and 2020, largely due to the increase in illicit manufacturing of fentanyl, where it can be laced into other illegal drugs to make them more potent and cheaper. Just two milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal, depending on the person’s size and tolerance. Synthetic opioid overdoses lead to over 150 deaths every day. 

A team at the University of Houston that developed the new vaccine say it could affect fentanyl’s impact on the brain, eliminating the euphoric feelings it produces. They published their findings in the journal Pharmaceutics.

​​“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,” says Colin Haile, the study’s lead author and a research associate professor of psychology at UH and the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics (TIMES), in the University’s press release. The vaccine could help people who are addicted get off the drug. About 80% of people who become dependent on the drug are estimated to relapse, according to the authors. And it doesn’t help that the drug is easily accessible and oftentimes in other drugs.

“Fentanyl is the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered,” Anne Milgram, administrator at the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, says in a government post for National Fentanyl Awareness Day this year. “Fentanyl is everywhere. From large metropolitan areas to rural America, no community is safe from this poison.  We must take every opportunity to spread the word to prevent fentanyl-related overdose death and poisonings from claiming scores of American lives every day.”

The study found that while the antibodies generated by the vaccine target fentanyl, they don’t minimize the effects of other drugs needed for potential pain management in patients. 

“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,” says Haile in the release. 

Due to the study being conducted on rats, it has its limitations. It also works by helping curb the addiction for those who are dependent on the opioid, but won’t help in the event of a sudden overdose, for example. The researchers note they plan to complete human clinical trials in the coming months.

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