This is not actually new, but this story just came out and I hadn’t noticed the coverage before, so I’m catching up.
To combat the fentanyl epidemic in the United States, researchers at the University of Houston have created a fentanyl vaccine that could help prevent overdoses. They aim to test the vaccine in a human trial within the next year.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid drug that kills hundreds of Texans every year, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.
The vaccine will need FDA approval before people can use it. According to Johns Hopkins University, that process can take five to 15 years, and sometimes longer. The process can be sped up during a public health emergency where no alternate treatments exist. The first COVID-19 vaccines were created, tested and given emergency use authorization by the FDA in under a year.
In a study published last year in the journal Pharmaceutics, the Houston researchers reported that their vaccine triggered production of antibodies against fentanyl in rats and decreased the amount of fentanyl in rats’ brains. The researchers’ vaccine received praise from Governor Greg Abbott, who visited the University of Houston last year to congratulate the team.
Doctors can prescribe maintenance medications like methadone and buprenorphine for those recovering from opioid addiction. These drugs are opioids, but they can reduce opioid cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
The effectiveness of these medications depends on how they’re made, the opioid being misused and access to the medications. Recovering patients can relapse after they leave treatment and are especially vulnerable to overdose deaths, said Colin Haile, a research associate professor at the University of Houston.
“Clearly, the medications that we have to address opioid use disorder and overdose are not working,” said Haile, who led the team that created the vaccine.
Haile’s team created a vaccine that could tell the human body to produce antibodies against fentanyl. If a vaccinated person consumes fentanyl, the antibodies could attach to the drug, preventing it from getting to the brain and inducing a “high” or potential overdose. The fentanyl would remain in the blood, eventually passing through the kidneys and out the body.
In the published study, Haile’s team said the vaccine successfully produced antibodies against fentanyl in rats. The vaccine also blocked one of the effects of fentanyl: pain relief. Compared to unvaccinated rats, vaccinated rats also had decreased fentanyl levels in their brains when fentanyl was administered 20 weeks after their first vaccination.
“The effect was pretty incredible,” Haile said. “I’ve never seen anything like this, ever.”
The vaccine produced antibodies that attached to fentanyl but not to methadone or buprenorphine, meaning that vaccinated people could potentially still take those medications to treat opioid addiction. The antibodies also did not bind to morphine or oxycodone, two other opioids.
Like I said, this isn’t new – UH put out a press release last November to tout the accomplishment. There are other vaccines in the research pipeline – this one wasn’t the first to be discovered, but it has some differences from the others out there. Researchers are going to put it into phase 1 human trials soon, with the goal of making the vaccine available to the public in the hopefully not-too-distant future. It sure has the potential to do a lot of good when it’s ready. Kudos to all for the work.