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Vaccine called ‘game changer’ in fight against opioid addiction

(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 overdose.

In a statement from the University of Houston, researchers say the vaccine blocks the drug’s ability to enter the brain, thus eliminating the drug’s “high.”

Fentanyl is a powerful and deadly synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine that has perpetuated 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.

Research published in the journal Pharmaceutics indicated an estimated 80% of those 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. Thus, the individual will not feel the euphoric effects and can ‘get back on the wagon’ to sobriety,” said the study’s lead author Colin Haile in a statement from the university.

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.

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.

“The team plans to start manufacturing clinical-grade vaccine in the coming months with clinical trials in humans planned soon,” according to the statement.

Researchers also said the vaccine “did not cause any adverse side effects” in the immunized rats involved in lab studies.

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.

These counterfeit drugs laced with fentanyl add to the number of overdoses in individuals who do not ordinarily consume opioids, researchers point out.

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

A new University of Washington research center focused specifically on medication development for substance use disorders opened last year.

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.

Experts say vaccines hold long-lasting promises that available medications do not.

Kosten called the vaccine a potential “game changer.” 

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, but a solution to the increasing 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.