(NewsNation) — Researchers say they have developed a vaccine that can prevent the effects of fentanyl, calling it a “game-changer” in the fight against opioid addiction.
In a statement from the University of Houston, researchers suggest the “breakthrough discovery” blocks the drug’s ability to enter the brain, thus eliminating the drug’s “high.”
“We’re very excited about the progress we’ve made,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Colin Haile, told NewsNation. “This is nearly six years in the making.”
Fentanyl is a powerful and deadly synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine that has helped perpetuate the U.S. opioid epidemic.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 150 people die every day from overdoses related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Two-thirds of the 107,000 overdose deaths in the country in 2021 are also attributed to the drug.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has called fentanyl the deadliest drug in the nation.
Researchers tout the development of the new vaccine as an effective relapse prevention agent that would theoretically make it easier for people to quit using opioids.
“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,” Haile said in a statement from the university.
The vaccine would have to be taken before an individual is exposed to fentanyl.
“The vaccine technology is a very different strategy in that we are given a vaccine against a chemical,” Haile said “And that chemical is fentanyl. Instead of, say, getting a vaccine against the pathogen, like a virus or bacteria. It’s much different.”
Research published in the journal Pharmaceutics indicated an estimated 80% of those dependent on the drug suffer a relapse.
According to researchers, lab tests on rats and mice showed very promising results, with the animals producing anti-fentanyl antibodies that stop the drug’s effects.
“We’ve used multiple behavioral paradigms, we’ve used the standards in the field,” Haile said. “And every experiment, the vaccine has performed remarkably.”
The vaccine is only in animal trials right now, but researchers believe they will see the same findings once human trials begin in the coming weeks.
According to the university statement, the team plans to start manufacturing clinical-grade vaccine in the coming months with clinical trials in humans planned soon.
“We are very excited to be moving forward in manufacturing the vaccine,” Haile said. “And once we get the clinical-grade material, the next step is to do toxicology testing for the FDA.”
Researchers also said the vaccine “did not cause any adverse side effects” in the immunized rats involved in lab studies.
Working to create a vaccine against drug addiction is nothing new. The first study in a peer-reviewed journal on the subject was published in Nature in 1974.
Experts say vaccines hold long-lasting promises that available medications do not.
The medications methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone are current treatments for opioid use disorder (OUD), but also come with downsides, according to experts.
According to a report from the National Institue of Health, current medications for opioid abuse have only had limited success and can be very costly. They have to be taken every day and may require a specialized doctor visit. Methadone itself can be addictive.
“Fentanyl use and overdose is a particular treatment challenge that is not adequately addressed with current medication,” said Therese A. Kosten, professor of psychology and senior author of the study.
Kosten called the vaccine a potential “game changer.”
Dr. Haile told NewsNation he would use the word “hope.”
“I would call it hope,” he said. ” And you know, ‘game changer’ as well, primarily because the medications that we use presently aren’t addressing the opioid epidemic. In fact, the opioid epidemic is getting worse. And so we need a different treatment strategy.”
Fentanyl was originally developed as a legal drug to treat intense pain from ailments including cancer.
In recent years, Mexican drug cartels have produced most of the illegal fentanyl seen in the U.S., smuggling it inside vehicles or strapped to pedestrians crossing at ports of entry along the border.
In 2022 alone, the DEA says it seized more than 50 million fake pills and 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder.
Illegal fentanyl is an especially dangerous threat because it is often added to street drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine and even other opioids.
Haile included illicitly manufactured medications for ADHD and anti-anxiety to the list.
These counterfeit drugs laced with fentanyl add to the number of overdoses in individuals who do not ordinarily consume opioids, researchers point out.
“Individuals are being exposed to fentanyl unknowingly, and unfortunately, overdosing and dying,” Haile said. “So the idea would be to use the vaccine as a prophylactic measure, just in case individuals are accidentally exposed, or for those individuals that may come into contact with the drug to a high degree.”
A new University of Washington research center focused specifically on medication development for substance use disorders opened last year.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it may approve over-the-counter nasal sprays that prevent overdoses as part of its efforts to expand access to the life-saving drug naloxone.
Officials are hopeful it could help solve the fentanyl epidemic. They say a solution to the growing crisis could not come too soon.
According to the DEA, nitazines, a synthetic opioid first developed in the 1950s and up to 40 times stronger than fentanyl, is now falling back into the hands of Americans.
As the supply of nitazines rises, the rise in nitazine-related deaths increases the public health response to the growing addiction crisis across the nation.