HOUSTON — A research team led by the University of Houston has developed a vaccine that could block the opioid fentanyl from entering the brain, which would eliminate the drug’s “high.” They call the discovery a potential "game changer."
Over 150 people die every day from synthetic opioid overdoses, including fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.
Fentanyl is especially dangerous because it's often added to street drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine and other opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone/acetaminophen pills, leading to accidental overdoses.
"Fentanyl is the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said. “Fentanyl is everywhere. From large metropolitan areas to rural America, no community is safe from this poison."
As little as two milligrams of fentanyl (the size of two grains of rice) is likely to be fatal depending on a person’s size.
The vaccine is designed to prevent relapses for people trying to quit, according to findings published in the journal Pharmaceutics. They said an estimated 80% of users dependent on the drug suffer a relapse.
"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," the study’s lead author Dr. Colin Haile, a research associate professor of psychology at UH and the Texas Institute for Measurement explained. "Thus, the individual will not feel the euphoric effects and can ‘get back on the wagon’ to sobriety."
Researchers said the vaccine did not cause any adverse side effects in the immunized rats involved in lab studies. The team plans to start clinical trials in humans soon.
Dr. Haile said they're also creating vaccines against methamphetamine and cocaine, but each is in different stages of development. He believes the fentanyl vaccine has the best chance of getting FDA approval first.
“The unique thing about this vaccine is that we are using components that are already in vaccines that are approved.”
He said the vaccine could also be used to protect first responders who may unknowingly come in contact with the deadly drug.