Drug Enforcement Administration chief Anne Milgram calls fentanyl the "single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered"—but researchers at the University of Houston may have found a way to dramatically cut deaths from the synthetic opioid. The team developed a vaccine that blocks fentanyl from entering the brain, meaning users won't experience a high, Smithsonian magazine reports. So far, it's only been tested on rats, but experts not involved with study say it appears extremely promising. The researchers plan to start human trials soon. The vaccine, which generates antibodies that bind to fentanyl, is detailed in a study in the journal Pharmaceutics.
The vaccine was designed to help people stop using the drug and prevent relapses, but it would also protect people inadvertently exposed to fentanyl when dealers mix it with other illicit drugs, says lead researcher Colin Haile, an associate professor of psychology. "If the drug does not get into the brain, there are no effects. There are no euphoric effects, and there are no lethal effects as well," he tells KTRK. The CDC estimates that there were a record 107,000 overdose deaths in the US last year, and more than half of them involved fentanyl or other synthetic opioids. Fentanyl is around 50 times stronger than heroin and the DEA says many overdose victims don't know they have taken it until is too late.
Haile says the vaccine was five years in the making and if they gain FDA approval and human trials go well, the shots could hit the market in three years. He says the rats involved in the study did not experience adverse side effects. "The anti-fentanyl antibodies were specific to fentanyl and a fentanyl derivative and did not cross-react with other opioids, such as morphine," Haile says in a University of Houston release. "That means a vaccinated person would still be able to be treated for pain relief with other opioids." Study co-author Therese Kosten, director of the UH's Developmental, Cognitive & Behavioral Neuroscience program, says the vaccine could be a "game changer" in the fight against the opioid epidemic. (Read more fentanyl stories.)