HOUSTON– The end of the fentanyl crisis may be in sight, thanks to a team of researchers in Texas who claim to have successfully developed a vaccine that could be a “game changer” in addiction treatment.
A team led by the University of Houston has developed a vaccine against fentanyl that can prevent the synthetic opioid from entering the brain.
“There’s no doubt about it. We’ve developed something that’s a new game changer,” Dr. Colin Haile, associate professor of psychology at UH and the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistics (TIMES) told Fox News on a recent tour of the research facility.
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“It’s a very different strategy to treat a person with an opioid use disorder.”
Their vaccine works in a very different way, said Dr. Haile, of other opioid treatments and overdose deaths.
It essentially produces antibodies just like other vaccines that make antibodies against a virus or bacteria.
The vaccine from Dr. Haile does the same by preventing fentanyl from entering the user’s brain.
Proteins are used to keep the drug in the bloodstream – then it is flushed out by the kidneys.
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“It’s similar to the hepatitis B vaccine. The vaccine stimulates the body to make antibodies against fentanyl,” said Dr. Haile, “and if a person takes fentanyl, those antibodies will bind to the drug and prevent it from getting to the brain.”
He added: “Without the vaccine, fentanyl quite easily penetrates the brain, stimulating euphoric centers and can also stimulate parts of the brain that control breathing, leading to overdose and death.”
Tests on lab rats and mice showed promising results, Haile said, and he believes they’ll see the same findings when human trials begin in the coming weeks.
“We did extensive studies in mice and rats and the effect of the vaccine was quite dramatic,” he says. We have shown that the vaccine does indeed prevent fentanyl from entering the brain. It keeps it in the blood. And then the fentanyl is removed from the body.”
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He believes the vaccine could be available to the public within two years, he said.
“Since the vaccine already consists of components that are already on the market and have already been tested in humans, we are hopeful that the approval process will be expedited when it comes time to submit our application to the FDA.”
The team started work on the fentanyl vaccine nearly six years ago.
Dr. Haile and his team began work on the vaccine nearly six years ago when an unprecedented rise in overdose deaths surfaced. The vaccine was developed based on two protein strands that are already used in other vaccine treatments.
Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids have become the leading cause of overdose deaths in the US and it is estimated that there will be more than 110,000 cases between August 2021 and August 2022 – a stunning record for a single 12-month period.
With more than 150 people dying every day from synthetic opioid overdoses, the vaccine comes at a critical time as the drug crisis grips the country, according to the CDC.
“Unfortunately, from about 10 years ago, fentanyl production ramped up and became much more part of the mainstream in terms of illicit drug markets, to see it first become part of the drug supply and more recently just completely take over. any other illicit opioid,” said Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who led Dr. Haile consults, to Fox News.
“So, heroin [use] is declining in many parts of the country because fentanyl is cheaper, easier to smuggle and causes the same brain effects.”
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The vaccine’s development has been funded by the Department of Defense, where officials tell Fox News they supported the project in response to the need to address the prevalence of addiction among many military personnel’s families.
“We need this vaccine… There are so many people that can be helped.”
Dr. Haile points out that this vaccine would be best for those who have already undergone a detox because it prevents relapse.
“This vaccine is for people who want to quit. It’s not for people who don’t want to quit,” he says.
“A vaccinated person – if they don’t want to quit their opioid addiction, they can take other drugs, other opioid drugs or just other drugs that don’t target vaccine antibodies.”
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People have already contacted the team at the University of Houston asking to be added to upcoming trials — something Dr. Haile underlined the need for this treatment.
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“We need this. We need this vaccine. And there are so many people who can be helped,” he says.
“It has to happen and it will happen.”
Fox News’ Evan Goldman contributed to this report.