Researchers are developing a vaccine that may prevent opioid-related overdose fatalities.
A new study published in ACS Chemical Biology could halt the most dangerous effects of synthetic opioids fentanyl and carfentanil that have been the major forces in fueling the deadly opioid epidemic and causing overdose fatalities in the U.S. The team reported, “The current study evaluated dual fentanyl/heroin conjugate vaccine effectiveness using a warm water tail-withdrawal and a fentanyl/heroin-vs-food choice procedure in male and female rats across a 105-day observation period.” The drug may reduce fentanyl-related and carfentanil-induced overdoses.
Fentanyl is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, and carfentanil, commonly known as an “elephant tranquilizer,” is used by veterinarians to sedate large animals. It is up to 10,000 times stronger than morphine and is being added by street dealers to heroin and cocaine. Carfentanil- and fentanyl-related overdoses are becoming more common as both have been found in illicit drugs which have been unintentionally ingested by individuals who’ve fatally overdosed. The problem is becoming more and more common as fentanyl is being shipped overseas and is easily made to look like other, more accessible, and less harmful, drugs.
After performing multiple experiments in laboratory rats, researchers found the vaccines prevented respiratory depression, the main reason that the synthetics are associated with overdose deaths. They also found the experimental drugs reduced the amount of fentanyl or carfentanil that made its way to the brain, where the opioids tell the body to slow breathing to the point in which it can be deadly.
“Synthetic opioids are not only extremely deadly but also addictive and easy to manufacture, making them a formidable public health threat, especially when the coronavirus crisis is negatively impacting mental health,” Kim Janda, PhD, a chemist at Scripps Research Institute in California, who formulated the vaccines. “We’ve shown it is possible to prevent these unnecessary deaths by eliciting antibodies that stop the drug from reaching the brain. The vaccines could be used in emergency situations to treat overdoses and as a therapy for those with substance abuse disorders.”
The new formulations are still in the early stages of testing, but the latest data “brings us hope that this approach will work to treat a number of opioid-related maladies,” Janda said. In addition, they could protect those in the military who are exposed to opioids as part of chemical warfare, and they may also help police dogs trained to sniff out illicit substances.
“Unfortunately, the rise in carfentanil- and fentanyl-related overdose incidents is placing further strain on already overwhelmed public health systems currently battling a pandemic,” Janda said. “We look forward to continuing our vaccine research and translating it to the clinic, where we can begin to make an impact on the opioid crisis.”
The team concluded, “These data demonstrate that a vaccine can simultaneously attenuate the thermal antinociceptive effects of two structurally dissimilar opioids. However, the vaccine did not attenuate fentanyl/heroin mixture self-administration, suggesting a greater magnitude of vaccine responsiveness is required to decrease opioid reinforcement relative to anti-nociception.”