Treatment prevents opioids from entering the brain

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Researchers say a fentanyl vaccine showed promise in a clinical trial involving rats. Luis Velasco/Stocksy
  • Researchers say a new vaccine shows promise for stopping fentanyl from entering a person’s brain.
  • They say the vaccine could help reduce overdoses and aid recovery from addiction.
  • Experts point out, however, that the new vaccine has only been tested in rats, so more research is needed on its effectiveness in humans.
  • They also note that people who received the vaccine could switch to other opioids.

Researchers claim to have developed a breakthrough vaccine that prevents fentanyl from entering the brain and eliminates its high effect.

The researchers said the vaccine could have major implications for helping solve the country’s opioid crisis.

The study, published in the journal Pharmaceutics, was conducted by researchers at the University of Houston. In it, the team of scientists report that the vaccine targets the synthetic opioid fentanyl by blocking its ability to enter the brain.

The team said opioid use disorder (OUD) is treatable, but around 80% of people who are dependent on the drug experience a relapse after treatment

The researchers said in a statement that the vaccine “couldn’t be more timely or more in demand.”

“More than 150 people die every day from synthetic opioid overdoses, including fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine,” the researchers said. “Consuming about 2 milligrams of fentanyl (the size of two grains of rice) is likely to be fatal depending on a person’s size.”

The vaccine did not produce adverse side effects in the rats involved in the laboratory studies, the researchers said. The team plans to begin clinical trials in humans soon.

“Our vaccine is able to generate anti-fentanyl antibodies that bind to consumed fentanyl and block it from entering the brain, allowing it to be eliminated from the body through the kidneys,” said lead author Colin Haile. of the study and research associate. professor of psychology at the University of Houston and founding member of the UH Drug Discovery Institute, said in the statement. “Thus, the individual will not experience the euphoric effects and can ‘get back on the train’ to sobriety.”

Fentanyl is particularly dangerous because it is frequently added to street drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and other opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone/acetaminophen pills, and even counterfeit benzodiazepines like Xanax.

As a result, people who are often unaware they are taking fentanyl can die from it or become addicted to it.

Dr. William Soliman is the founder and CEO of the Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs. He told Healthline that there is currently nothing comparable to the vaccine.

“It works similar to other vaccines in that it makes antibodies that recognize a target opioid,” Soliman said. “Anti-fentanyl antibodies are specific to fentanyl and its derivatives and have not cross-reacted with opioids like morphine, meaning a vaccinated patient could still be treated with other opioids.”

Jay Evans, research professor and director of the Center for Translational Medicine at the University of Montana, told Healthline the vaccine could have multiple uses.

“The vaccine could be given to people with opioid use disorder to help them quit smoking and not relapse while seeking treatment,” Evans said. “The vaccine could also be used to prevent overdose in people at risk of accidental or intentional exposure to fentanyl.”

Dr. Mike Sevilla, a family physician based in Salem, Ohio, told Healthline he was impressed not only with the vaccine’s apparent ability to prevent an addictive effect, but also that it could save lives after an overdose.

He added that the vaccine would streamline the recovery process for people addicted to fentanyl.

“In the past, drug treatment for substance use disorders really relied on patients following strict diets, which can be difficult,” Sevilla said. “Accessing some of these drugs to treat addictions can be difficult, depending on where the person lives, their ability to get to the treatment clinic, and other social health factors. I believe that a vaccine to potentially treat addictions could be a game changer. »

Some experts stop short of calling the vaccine a breakthrough for now.

“Just because we’re seeing this breakthrough through an animal study doesn’t mean its effectiveness will transfer to humans,” Dr. Emil Tsai, neuroscientist and founding CEO of biotech developer SyneuRx, told Healthline. . “Biological divergence between species can lead to unreliable results during transfer.

“That unknown aside, there are a few things in the study that I doubt,” Tsai said. “It is unclear why the results were more effective for male rats than for female rats. Also, the decision to make this drug only respond to fentanyl does little to combat those who are addicted to opioids, as it leaves them open to seeking out other opioid drugs.

Tsai said the vaccine only treats part of the recovery.

“It’s important to treat the full extent of the addiction,” Tsai said. “Relying on biological methods is a piecemeal solution. It does not solve the whole problem. Those addicted to drugs or alcohol need counseling and mental well-being to heal.

Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a medical toxicologist and director of the National Capital Poison Center, told Healthline that the vaccine will not treat other opioids and that some people may avoid them due to the false stigma associated with vaccines.

“Booster boosters are also likely to be needed for the fentanyl vaccine, which means those vaccinated may not have lifelong immunity to a fentanyl overdose, and the duration of action and safety of the vaccine in humans have yet to be evaluated,” Johnson-Arbor said. . “The need for vaccine boosters means those vaccinated will need to re-engage with the healthcare system on a regular basis, which can be a challenge for some people with opioid use disorder.”

None of this precludes the vaccine from being a good idea, Johnson-Arbor said.

“Overall, fentanyl vaccination is a promising advance in the prevention and treatment of opioid use disorders, but it still requires further study in humans as well as consideration of its acceptance in the current social and political climate of this country,” she said.

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