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Researchers are developing a fentanyl vaccine that could reduce overdoses and relapses

The highest increase in mortality from opioid-related causes, predominantly driven by fentanyl, is now among Black Americans.
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The highest increase in mortality from opioid-related causes, predominantly driven by fentanyl, is now among Black Americans.

University of Houston researchers are looking into a new way to prevent opioid relapse, overdoses and deaths: an anti-fentanyl vaccine.

The vaccine, which has only been tested in mice so far, would help the body produce antibodies that bind to fentanyl and prevent it from entering the brain. As a result, the antibodies eliminate "the high" of the drug and the possibility of overdosing.

"If they receive our anti-fentanyl vaccine, it will prevent them from overdosing," said Colin Haile, the lead author of a paper detailing these findings. "The individual does not feel any of the euphoric effects or any of the respiratory depression effects which are associated with overdose and death."

The vaccine is designed for high-risk individuals that are struggling with substance abuse. Long-term opioid use disorder is notoriously difficult to treat. 80 to 90 percent of these individuals end up relapsing, said Haile.

"It is a potential treatment option because a lot of time individuals that are being treated, stopped taking their medication because of side effects," Haile said. “Maybe the vaccine could be an alternative for those individuals that can’t tolerate the other treatments or the other treatments are ineffective."

Haile said he hopes to begin human trials of the vaccine in one year. Doses of the vaccine must first be manufactured. Then, researchers at UH Drug Discovery Institute will perform toxicology testing in rodents and submit that data to the FDA before moving forward.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that doctors prescribe for pain relief. However, the drug has become increasingly misused in recent years and is the main driver of rising opioid deaths in Texas. Over 1,600 Texans died from fentanyl-related overdoses in 2021, according to state health data. That's an almost 90-percent increase from the year before.

The dangers of fentanyl lie in its potency. The Center for Disease Control reports that it’s 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Many people are ingesting the drug unwittingly. The substance is often used to cut less-potent illicit substances like heroin and cocaine.

The Houston Field Office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has seized 350,000 fake pills since May, according to Miguel Madrigal, Deputy Special Agent in Charge. He said 135,000 of those pills had a lethal dose — two milligrams or more.

"Fentanyl is having a devastating effect throughout Texas," Madrigal said. "In some areas, for example, outside of Austin, we’ve seen a lot of young teenagers and adults getting poisoned with pills they believe are legitimate, but they’re actually fake pills laced with fentanyl."

Madrigal said access to these pills has become easier, especially for young people who can use their phones or social media to shipments to their homes.

Philip Van Guilder, the Community Affairs Director at Greenhouse Treatment Center in Grand Prairie, said a fentanyl vaccine that is proven to be safe and effective in humans would be a miracle drug.

"It’s wonderful to know that people are really looking for a solution for this pandemic," Van Guilder said. "Thank you, thank you, thank you to every researcher that’s devoting their life to this. Out of this research, something good is going to happen."

At the moment, he is cautiously optimistic.

"I think it's too early to know, it’s not a solution today," Van Guilder said. "I can see how it might be, although it’s still unclear to me how this will work. Let's hope that they're right and it does exactly what they say it’ll do."

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