New research from a team of scientists at the University of Houston aims to create a vaccine to block the powerful opioid fentanyl, which is the top cause of overdose deaths in America. The vaccine is meant for people who already struggle with opioid addiction and hope to break the cycle. For fentanyl addicts, Medication-Assisted Treatment is considered the gold standard of care. However, a “vaccine” of this type could be a game-changer for preventing relapse from opioid use disorder.
Fentanyl is now responsible for the majority of overdose deaths in America. The drug, 50 to 100 times stronger than opioids, is often added to other drugs such as cocaine or Oxy. Some users die because they have no tolerance for opioids. Nearly 150 people die a day from fentanyl overdoses.
What Would a Fentanyl Vaccine Be Able to Accomplish?
The researchers at the University of Houston focused on using a vaccine to help block the effects of fentanyl. Without them entering a particular part of the brain, there is no euphoria or high. With this type of vaccination, people in pain would still be able to benefit from other opioids. (This could be a problem for people with opioid use disorder, who are highly likely to switch to another drug such as heroin.)
“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,” the study’s lead author Colin Haile said of the development.
It can also help people who are addicted already and fear relapse. Without the high, they won’t get the effects they crave. “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…,” said Haile.
It’s not clear, however, if a person would get relief from withdrawal symptoms with such a vaccine. Many people addicted to fentanyl feel the need for the high but also may suffer severe withdrawal without their fix. This can lead them to seek other drugs to help with their cravings.
More Tools for Fentanyl Addiction Needed
Fentanyl addiction is a powerful disease, and many people who use fentanyl will end up using other drugs when they quit if they don’t have a plan in place for recovery. In addition, addiction is a progressive condition, and many people trade one addiction for another in search of relief.
California, for example, is resistant to adapting to the new normal of fighting fentanyl. Fentanyl addiction requires more potent opioid-reversal drugs. Often, Narcan can’t help a person overdose on fentanyl. However, harm reduction, addiction treatment, and Medication-Assisted Treatment are among the best tools to fight the fentanyl epidemic.