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Researchers report the breakthrough discovery of a new vaccine that targets the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl. It can block fentanyl’s ability to enter the brain, thus eliminating the drug’s “high.”

Study suggests new vaccine could prevent deadly opioid from entering the brain.

A new vaccine has been developed that targets the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl that could block its ability to enter the brain, thus eliminating the drug’s “high.” The breakthrough discovery could have major implications for the nation’s opioid epidemic by becoming a relapse prevention agent for people trying to quit using opioids. While research reveals Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) is treatable, an estimated 80% of those dependent on the drug suffer a relapse. The vaccine was developed by a research team led by the University of Houston.

Published recently in the journal Pharmaceutics, the findings could not be timelier or more in demand: Over 150 people die every day from overdoses of synthetic opioids including fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Consumption of about 2 milligrams of fentanyl (the size of two grains of rice) is likely to be fatal depending on a person’s size.

Colin Haile, University of Houston research associate professor of psychology and the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics (TIMES), and a founding member of the UH Drug Discovery Institute. Haile is reporting a breakthrough fentanyl vaccine that could be a “game changer” in opioid addiction. Credit: University of Houston

“We believe these findings could have a significant impact on a very serious problem plaguing society for years – opioid misuse. 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, 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.

In another positive finding, the vaccine did not cause any adverse side effects in the immunized rats involved in lab studies. The team plans to start manufacturing clinical-grade vaccine in the coming months with clinical trials in humans planned soon.

Fentanyl is an especially dangerous threat because it is often added to street drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine and other opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone/acetaminophen pills, and even to counterfeit benzodiazepines like Xanax. These counterfeit drugs laced with fentanyl add to the amount of fentanyl overdoses in individuals who do not ordinarily consume opioids.

In the lab: Therese Kosten, professor of psychology and director of the Developmental, Cognitive & Behavioral Neuroscience program and Colin Haile, research associate professor of psychology and the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics (TIMES), and a founding member of the UH Drug Discovery Institute. Credit: University of Houston

“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.

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