A new vaccine may be able to totally block that effects of fentanyl — potentially saving thousands of Americans from overdoses each year.
Researchers at the University of Houston, in Texas, developed a shot that was able to stop the extremely potent drug from entering the brains of rats.
Fentanyl – which is behind around 200 deaths in the US a day – binds to opioid receptors in the brain. During an overdose, the brain is denied of oxygen, causing severe injury or death.
It also was able to do so without affecting other painkillers like morphine, meaning a vaccinated person could still use other painkilling drugs if needed.
The shot works by stimulating the T-cells in the immune system in a way to create antibodies which bind to fentanyl in the bloodstream.
These antibodies keep catch the drug in a person’s blood and prevent them from spreading further and causing harm. It then gets processed in the kidney and removed from the body.
Fentanyl is a highly potent synthetic opioid. It was developed as a pain killer to be used in hospitals but has found its way into the illicit drug supply.
America is suffering from a devastating fentanyl epidemic with 71,000 of the record 107,000 drug overdose deaths recorded in the US last year were caused by it.
The strength of the drug makes it deadly in small quantities. Only 2milligrams — the equivalent of five grains of salt — is enough to cause an overdose.
Researchers developed the drug for people suffering from opioid use disorder, but also say it could be used by college students and others who may experiment with illicit substances.
Researchers developed a three shot vaccine that leads to the formation of fentanyl antibodies in a person’s bloodstream. These antibodies can prevent the drug from reaching the brain and totally negate it. This, in turn, stops overdoses.
Fentanyl has overrun some American communities, and was responsible for 70,000 drug overdose deaths in 2021. Pictured: A homeless man in Seattle, Washington, smokes fentanyl
These deaths often occur when a person uses another drug like cocaine or counterfeit Xanax that have been laced with fentanyl.
Houston researchers hope their vaccine could severely tide the nation’s drug overdose crises and same the lives of thousands.
They are aiming to begin phase 1 human trials for the vaccine next year.
‘When you get a vaccine, we’re usually vaccinating people against [viruses]. Here we are vaccinated a person against a chemical,’ Dr Colin Haile, lead researchers and professor at the University of Houston, told DailyMail.com.
How does the fentanyl vaccine work?
Researchers at the University of Houston developed a fentanyl vaccine that blocked the drug from reaching the brains of rats.
It is a three dose vaccine with each shot coming three weeks after the previous.
The shot trains T-cells in the body’s immune system to generate antibodies capable of fighting fentanyl.
Dr Colin Haile, who led the research, speculates that the body already does create antibodies capable of fighting fentanyl, though not enough to prevent these overdoses.
When the body detects fentanyl in the blood stream, these antibodies will bind to it and prevent the drug from getting to the brain.
As a result, the effects of fentanyl as a pain killer, and its side effects of euphoria and sedation are prevented.
Instead, the drug is sent to the kidney where it it processed by the organ and removed from the body.
Researchers hope to launch human clinical trials for the drug next year.
Published last month in the journal Pharmaceuticals, researchers tested their vaccine in 60 rats, 28 of which were giving the shots.
The rats were vaccinated with all three doses. A second dose came three weeks after the first, with the third coming after six weeks.
Dr Haile explained that the vaccine worked by targeting a molecule that serves as the backbone of fentanyl.
Delivered via an adjuvant, it then trains the body to generate antibodies capable of fighting off the drug.
‘When an individual gets the vaccine, they get antibodies against fentanyl,’ he said.
‘The antibodies will bind to the drug and keep it from getting to the brain. If you prevent fentanyl from entering the brain you prevent it from producing euphoric effects and effects that lead to overdose deaths.’
Dr Haile notes that it is likely that the body creates antibodies to illicit foreign substances like fentanyl on its own – though not enough to totally negate it.
He cites previous research finding that the body will develop antibodies to other drugs like meth.
Researchers took blood samples from the rodents who were vaccinated to determine their antibody levels after each shot.
They found a significant jump in antibody levels between weeks four and six, and then consistent protection from the fourth week until the tenth and final week of the study.
‘If you prevent fentanyl from entering the brain you prevent it from producing euphoric effects and effects that lead to overdose deaths.’
Fentanyl binds to receptors in the brain, causing a feeling of numbness, euphoria and sedation.
Over time it diminishes the receptors sensitivity, eventually leading to the opioids being the only way a person can reach those feelings. This leads to addiction.
When a person overdoses their breathing may stop, depriving the brain and other parts of the body oxygen. As a result, a person will suffer severe brain injury.
This can often be deadly. Even survivors will often have permanent brain damage.
Naxolone, sold under the brand name Narcan, is the most effective tool doctors and first responders have against an overdose.
The fast-acting nasal spray quickly clears up the opioid receptors on a person’s brain and undoes the effects of the drug.
It can only be used in the time immediately after an overdose, though. This vaccine can prevent the overdose all together.
The above graph shows the CDC estimates for the number of deaths triggered by drug overdoses every year across the United States. It reveals figures have now reached a record high, and are surging on the last three years
Opioids including fentanyl (black line) were behind almost three in five fatalities from a drug overdose, CDC figures showed. The black opioids line includes deaths from synthetic opioids (brown) natural and semi-synthetic opioids (green), heroin (blue), and methadone (purple)
Drug overdose deaths in America are largely concentrated in the Appalachian region
Scientists used experiments to gauge how the rats would react to pain to whether the fentanyl had been negated in their blood stream.
Opioids like fentanyl work by creating a feeling called analgesia – the inability to feel pain.
Each of the mice in both study groups were given doses of fentanyl. Some of 0.05 milligrams for every kilogram of their weight (mg/kg), and some 0.1 mg/kg.
What is fentanyl and why is it so dangerous?
Fentanyl was originally developed in Belgium in the 1950s to aid cancer patients with their pain management.
Given its extreme potency it has become popular amongst recreational drug users.
Overdose deaths linked to synthetic opioids like fentanyl jumped from nearly 10,000 in 2015 to nearly 20,000 in 2016 – surpassing common opioid painkillers and heroin for the first time.
And drug overdoses killed more than 72,000 people in the US in 2017 – a record driven by fentanyl.
It is often added to heroin because it creates the same high as the drug, with the effects biologically identical. But it can be up to 50 times more potent than heroin, according to officials in the US.
In the US, fentanyl is classified as a schedule II drug – indicating it has some medical use but it has a strong potential to be abused and can create psychological and physical dependence.
If the vaccine is effective, then the pain-negating effects of fentanyl would not be present in rats who received the shots.
Researchers conducted two tests to determine the rats pain tolerance. For one, they applied heat to the rats tail to see if it would react.
The method is known as a the tail-flick test, and if the animal removes their TAIL from the heat it indicates they can feel pain.
For a second examination, the rats were placed on a heating plate as it was warmed up. If a rodent lifted its legs off of the plate then they were in pain.
In both tests, the unvaccinated rats did not react to the pain, signaling the fentanyl had an effective analgesic effect on them.
Vaccinated rats reacted as expected to the pain stimulus, though, showing that the pain killer was negated in their bloodstream.
Tests on brain samples also revealed that no traces of the drug.
‘Its as if they never got fentanyl at all. Complete blockade,’ Dr Haile said.
When further tests were run using other pain-killers like morphine and oxycodine, the vaccinated rats acted as if they were experiencing analgesia.
‘The anti-fentanyl antibodies were specific to fentanyl and a fentanyl derivative and did not cross-react with other opioids, such as morphine,’ Dr Haile explained.
That means a vaccinated person would still be able to be treated for pain relief with other opioids.
Dr Haile’s team have high hopes for the vaccine, if it proves to be successful.
He said it could be used for people addicted to illicit drugs who run the risk of accidentally using fentanyl.
Dr Haile used the example of a parent forcing their child to get vaccinated before going off to college to protect them in case they ‘experiment’.
Some notable cases of fentanyl overdose include rapper Mac Miller, who died of an overdose in 2018, and pop singer Prince, who died in 2016.
In humans, the jabs will likely be months apart from each other with protection that could last for years.
Fentanyl was responsible for a 80,800 American deaths in 2021, or 75 per cent of all fatal overdoses last year.
Illicit versions of the drug are largely sourced from Mexico via China, with experts pointing out that the southern border crisis is the main way they are trafficked into America.