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New Fentanyl Vaccine Could End Opioid Epidemic, Researchers Say

Over 150 people die every day from overdoses of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. A new injectable “vaccine” developed by University of Houston researchers can potentially block the drug’s ability to enter the brain, where it creates the ‘high’ that becomes so addictive — and deadly.

“We believe these findings could have a significant impact on a very serious problem plaguing society for years—opioid misuse,” said the study’s lead author Colin Haile, a research associate professor of psychology at UH and the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics (TIMES), and a founding member of the UH Drug Discovery Institute. “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.”

Two other positive findings for the injectable include: first, no adverse side-effects in lab rats tested thus far, and second, the vaccine is specific to fentanyl, which means patients could still receive less dangerous opiate treatment.

“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,” said Haile.

The lack of cross reaction is also good considering that fentanyl is often added to street drugs these days, with fatal consequences. The vaccine could theoretically save many lives that would have been accidentally lost to ‘bad’ drugs.

Opiate Use Disorder (OUD) is one of the leading causes of accidental death in this country, but doctors do believe it’s treatable. Unfortunately, nearly 80 percent of sufferers will relapse after ‘quitting’ the first time, so a stronger solution to the problem may be in order, given that doctors so willingly hand out opiate prescriptions now.

“Fentanyl use and overdose is a particular treatment challenge that is not adequately addressed with current medications because of its pharmacodynamics and managing acute overdose with the short-acting naloxone is not appropriately effective as multiple doses of naloxone are often needed to reverse fentanyl’s fatal effects,” said Therese Kosten, senior author of the study. “This vaccine could be a game changer.”

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