Researchers want to vaccinate addicts against a deadly drug

This approach could help people who suffer from a severe addiction to dangerous painkillers.

Addictions to dangerous substances are not new and have existed since the dawn of time. But with advances in pharmacology, more and more powerful, addictive drugs are coming onto the market. And often, they have terrible consequences for users who abuse them. A team of researchers from the University of Houston wants to change that with work spotted by Interesting Engineering; she hopes to improve the care of patients addicted to a particularly devastating narcotic thanks to a vaccine.

The substance in question is fentanyl. Chemically speaking, this drug belongs to the class of opioids, a family of molecules which notably includes morphine. Technically, it is supposed to be used as a painkiller in cases of very significant suffering; doctors prescribe it in particular to patients with unbearable chronic painfor example in very advanced cancers.

A public health disaster

The concern is that fentanyl has an unfortunate dual feature. First, it is about 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin, substances whose devastating effects are already well documented. It is so potent that just two milligrams is usually fatal for the user. And this even if he already has an addiction to opioids.

The other problem is that it is also very cheap to produce. In recent years, traffickers have therefore seized it; today, fentanyl is often used as an additive to increase the potency of other illegal drugs, or to cut them to reduce the price.

This explosive combination is wreaking havoc in the United States and Canada in particular; fentanyl is directly responsible for dozens of overdoses every day. Moreover, he responds rather badly to the naloxoneoften used as a last resort to save a person from opioid overuse.

This scourge is particularly problematic in the most disadvantaged areas, such as the suburbs of Houston; According to local health authorities, between 2011 and 2017, the number of fentanyl-related deaths increased increased by 1125% in the Rocket stronghold. And this dynamic seems to have accelerated even more since then.

The immune system involved

It is in this context that the University of Houston wanted to tackle the problem with a new approach. A team of researchers has developed a vaccine that stimulates the immune system to prevent this diabolical molecule from reaching the brain.

So far, it has only been tested on rodents; but the results strongly suggest that this treatment prevents the user from feeling the desired effects. This avoids stimulating the neurological circuits responsible for addiction.

Our vaccine is able to generate anti-fentanyl antibodies that bind to consumed fentanyl molecules and prevent it from entering the brain “Explains Colin Haile, lead author of the study, in a press release. “ It can thus be eliminated via the kidneys. Therefore, the individual will not feel any euphoria “, he details.

The other advantage is that the inoculation of this vaccine did not cause no side effects in rats. Researchers have no no undesirable interaction observed either with other substances which are regularly mixed with fentanyl. Excellent news for the clinical potential of this vaccine.

Antibodies were specific to fentanyl and its derivatives, and did not cross-react with other opioids “, explains Haile. In practice, this means that this vaccine does not close the door to the medical use of other opioids to treat severe pain. This is particularly important, because it is often in this context of great suffering that people develop these addictions to morphine derivatives.

Beautiful promises for the fight against addictions

According to the authors, this discovery could have profound implications for the fight against opioid addiction. Thanks to this vaccine, a doctor could set up a withdrawal protocol; this neutralized fentanyl would then be used as a substitute. It could replace drugs such as methadone, the effectiveness of which is relatively uncertain because it depends on a large number of factors.

Armed with these promising results, the Houston team now intends to launch the production of a vaccine slightly adapted to suit human physiology. It will soon be tested in a large clinical trial. It will therefore be interesting to examine the conclusions of the researchers at the end of this protocol. Because if successful, this approach could actually help some people regain control of their lives.

Researchers want to vaccinate addicts against a deadly drug