By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich
Across America, the opioid crisis has robbed families of their loved ones, devastated communities, and jeopardized the safety of our nation’s children. In 2021, more than 100,000 people lost their lives to drug overdoses.
Tragically, 67 percent of these deaths involved synthetic opioids, with fentanyl being the primary driver of the staggering surge in overdoses.
Fentanyl is a lab-manufactured drug used to treat pain that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. A lethal dose of fentanyl is just two milligrams, an amount so minuscule that it can fit on the tip of a pencil.
The drug is cheap to produce and highly potent. Unbeknownst to some users of illicit drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin, fentanyl “is being added or mixed into almost every purchasable drug,” according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Like other opioids, fentanyl is incredibly addictive. Of those struggling with Opioid Use Disorder (OUD), approximately 80 percent suffer a relapse.
Medication-assisted therapies such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone are currently the best options for OUD treatment. But the financial, regulatory, and societal barriers to accessing these drugs lead to high non-compliance rates.
Those suffering from opioid addiction need more than new strategies and approaches – they need new innovations and treatment options.
Recently, a research team led by the University of Houston developed a potentially revolutionary vaccine that could have a major impact on the nationwide opioid epidemic.
In a new study, led by Colin Haile, M.D., Ph.D., researchers discovered a vaccine technology that prevents fentanyl from entering the brain, consequently blocking the drug’s “high.”
In the study, the researchers administered fentanyl to rats and recorded changes in various physiological measures that are associated with overdoses, such as respiration, heart rate, and oxygen levels.
Remarkably, they found that in the vaccinated rats, the fentanyl-induced effects were prevented entirely.
According to Haile, “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.”
In short, the vaccine would prevent the euphoric and reinforcing effects of fentanyl that lead to addiction – and control the drug’s deadly effects that cause overdoses. Because the anti-fentanyl antibodies are specific to fentanyl and a fentanyl derivative, those who receive the vaccine could still be treated for pain relief with other opioids.
Haile was a recent guest on Newt’s World and discussed the potential implications of this groundbreaking discovery. If the trials succeed, the vaccine would ideally be used as an anti-relapse medication in conjunction with other medication-assisted therapies. It could also potentially be used as a preventative means for those who feel they are at risk of being exposed to fentanyl.
Although it is impossible to know when or if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will approve this vaccine for widespread use, Haile is optimistic that their application will be looked at in a “different way.” Two out of three parts of the vaccine have already proven to be safe and effective for use in humans, with one part of the vaccine already included in multiple vaccines on the market, and a second part of the vaccine already in human clinical trials.
The future impacts of this vaccine may not yet be clear. However, it offers a novel approach to addressing the nationwide opioid crisis. With more than 150 people losing their lives to synthetic opioid overdoses every day, researchers at the University of Houston who work to develop a fentanyl vaccine, offer a new source of hope to those struggling to overcome addiction.