Scientists believe they’ve developed a vaccine that stops fentanyl from entering the brain and keeps users from getting high – a breakthrough hailed as a “game changer” in the fight against the opioid overdose epidemic.
When tested on rats, the vaccine produced “significant amounts” of anti-fentanyl antibodies that latched onto the deadly addictive synthetic opioid, according to a study published in the journal Pharmaceutics.
That prevented the drug from “entering the brain, allowing it to be eliminated from the body through the kidneys,” said lead author Colin Haile of the University of Houston’s Drug Discovery Institute.
“So the individual won’t feel the euphoric effects and can ‘get back on the wagon’ to sobriety,” said Haile, who predicted it “could have a significant impact on a very serious problem that has plagued society for years.”
Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin, and a dose of just 2 milligrams — the size of two grains of rice — can be deadly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 71,000 Americans died of fentanyl overdoses last year — nearly 195 a day — by far the largest cause of the total 107,622 fatal overdoses.
The vaccine’s preclinical results “demonstrate efficacy in neutralizing” fentanyl, making it “a potential therapeutic agent [overuse] and overdose in humans,” the study said.
Another University of Texas professor involved in the study, Therese Kosten, called it a potential game changer.
“The use and overdose of fentanyl is a specific treatment challenge that is not being adequately addressed with current medications,” Kosten said.
The treatments currently in use are short-lived and require multiple doses, Kosten said, while effectively the vaccine would also act as a “relapse prevention agent,” the study said.
The team plans to begin production of clinical-grade vaccines in the coming months with plans to begin human trials.
The researchers said the vaccine caused no adverse side effects in the rats it was used on, and said the positive fentanyl-blocking results came from low, safe doses.
They also “expect minimal side effects in clinical trials” because key components are already widely used and tested.
Also, the antibodies were found to be specific for fentanyl, meaning “a vaccinated person can still be treated for pain relief with other opioids,” Haile noted.