Study suggests new vaccine may prevent deadly opioids from entering the brain
A new vaccine has been developed that targets the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl that could block its ability to enter the brain, eliminating the drug’s “high.” The groundbreaking discovery could have major implications for the country’s opioid epidemic by becoming a means of relapse prevention for people trying to stop using opioids. Although research shows that opioid use disorder (OLD) is treatable, it is estimated that 80% of those dependent on the drug will relapse. The vaccine was developed by a research team led by the University of Houston.
Recently published in the magazine Pharmacy, the findings couldn’t be more timely or popular: Every day, more than 150 people die from overdoses of synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Consumption of about 2 milligrams of fentanyl (the size of two grains of rice) is likely fatal, depending on a person’s size.
“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 the ingested fentanyl and prevent it from entering the brain, allowing it to be eliminated from the body through the kidneys. So the individual won’t feel the euphoric effects and can “get back on the bandwagon” to sobriety,” said the study’s lead author, Colin Haile, an associate professor of psychology at the UH and the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics (TIMES), and a founding member of the UH Drug Discovery Institute.
In another positive finding, the vaccine caused no adverse side effects in the immunized rats involved in laboratory studies. The team plans to begin production of clinical-grade vaccines in the coming months, and human clinical trials are planned soon.
Fentanyl is a particularly dangerous threat because it is often added to street drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine and other opioids such as oxycodone and hydrocodone/acetaminophen pills, and even counterfeit benzodiazepines such as Xanax. These counterfeit drugs laced with fentanyl contribute to the number of fentanyl overdoses in individuals who do not ordinarily use opioids.
“The anti-fentanyl antibodies were specific for fentanyl and a fentanyl derivative and did not cross-react with other opioids, such as morphine. That means a vaccinated person can still be treated for pain relief with other opioids,” said Haile.
The tested vaccine contains an adjuvant derived from E. coli called dmLT. An adjuvant molecule boosts the immune system’s response to vaccines, a critical component to the effectiveness of anti-addiction vaccines. The adjuvant was developed by collaborators at Tulane University School of Medicine and has proven vital to the vaccine’s effectiveness. Also on the team are Greg Cuny, Joseph P. & Shirley Shipman Buckley Endowed Professor of Drug Discovery at the UH College of Pharmacy along with researchers from Baylor College of Medicine and Michael E. DeBakey Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center.
Current treatments for OUD are methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, and their effectiveness depends on formulation, adherence, drug access, and the specific opioid abused.
Therese Kosten, professor of psychology and director of the Developmental, Cognitive & Behavioral Neuroscience program UHcalls the new vaccine a potential game changer.
“Fentanyl use and overdose is a specific treatment challenge that is not adequately addressed with current medications due to its pharmacodynamics and management of acute overdose with the short acting naloxone is not sufficiently effective as multiple doses of naloxone are often required to reverse the fatal effects of fentanyl to make. said Kosten, senior author of the study.
Reference: “An Immunoconjugate Vaccine Alters Distribution and Attenuates the 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.
The study was funded by the Department of Defense through the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Disorders Program, administered by RTI International’s Pharmacotherapies for Alcohol and Substance Use Disorders Alliance, which funded Haile’s lab over several years to develop the antifentanyl vaccine.