Vaccines have been the focus of much public debate since early 2020. The general public may be more aware now than ever before about how vaccines work, despite political challenges to their efficacy. While vaccines have been used to defend the global population from one pandemic, the U.S. has been fighting a different epidemic: fentanyl. Now, we may be positioned to fight that with a vaccine, too.
Opioid Use Disorder Vaccine
A research team at the University of Houston has reportedly developed a vaccine that could block the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl from entering the brain. The vaccine eliminates the drug’s ability to intoxicate the user. In other words, the vaccine gets rid of the ability to get high on fentanyl.
Many say this could be a game-changer for the fight against opioid use disorder. Unlike many substance use disorders, opioid use disorder is directly treatable. However, it’s estimated that 80% of opioid-dependent users who get treatment end up relapsing.
The vaccine could be the next step in the opioid abuse treatment chain. If patients can be professionally guided through detox and treated thereafter, they could also be vaccinated once they complete the program. Some institutions like Landmark Recovery already provide every related service but the new vaccine, including outpatient treatment. It’s possible that vaccinating patients is all that’s missing to significantly diminish relapse potential.
Why is an Opioid Vaccine Necessary?
The UH team’s findings were published in a scientific journal called Pharmaceutics. It included information that demonstrates how necessary a vaccine might be. More than 150 people die of fatal overdose on synthetic opioids.
The most prevalent of those opioids right now is fentanyl — 50 times stronger than heroin, 100 times stronger than morphine. Just two milligrams is typically a fatal dose, depending on the physical size of the user.
“We believe these findings could have a significant impact on a very serious problem plaguing society for years — opioid misuse,” said Colin Haile, the study’s lead author. “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 is a research associate professor of psychology at UH and the at the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics. He’s also a founding member of the UH Drug Discovery Institute.
Opioid Vaccine Concerns
Obviously, the greatest concern for one’s health has to do with fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, not the vaccine. However, the vaccine isn’t necessarily a sure thing just yet.
At present, the vaccine has been tested on rats and shown no detectable, adverse side effects. The team has yet to complete any actual clinical trials with the new drug, though. That step is expected in the months to come, which means human testing.
The vaccine in question also doesn’t do anything to block the effects of any other opioids. There are pros and cons to this. On one hand, this means vaccinated users can still overdose on other drugs that are just laced with fentanyl. On the other hand, it also means that vaccinated patients can still receive morphine and other pain relievers when physicians deem it necessary.
The vaccine may yet prove to be a godsend for harm reductionists. Many communities have opted to proliferate fentanyl test strips to the public so that those who use drugs can at least test to see if their product is laced with fentanyl.
Typically, fentanyl is an additive to something else when acquired on the street. Users rarely seek out fentanyl itself. They might, instead, buy pills like Xanax illegally, and those pills might turn out to be laced with fentanyl.
If they were vaccinated against fentanyl, though, they would only be able to overdose on the primary drug in question. Sometimes that drug is morphine, which could and often does legitimately still cause fatal overdose on its own, but the most probable killer (fentanyl) would be effectively neutralized.
The vaccine might become a big-pharma acquisition if clinical trials go well. From there, it might start showing up in hospitals and addiction treatment facilities to be administered to those who need it most.
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