The abuse of fentanyl, a potent opioid even worse than its cousin heroin, is spreading through parts of North America like an epidemic. So what if, just like an epidemic of a communicable disease, we could vaccinate against this problem?
Scientists from the Scripps Research Institute have announced they are working towards a vaccine that blocks the “high” of fentanyl. Eventually, it could be fine-tuned to work as a combination vaccine that offers protection from the euphoric effects of both heroin and fentanyl.
Opioid vaccinations have previously been hard to develop because the molecules are tiny and not recognized by the immune system. This new generation of anti-drug vaccinations works by stimulating the production of antibodies that bind to the molecule itself and stopping it from reaching the opioid receptor.
Their new work was recently presented at the 254th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
"There is an urgent need to discover effective medications to treat substance use disorders. Increasingly, drug users are turning to opioids and powerful synthetic versions of these drugs that can sometimes be as much as 100 times more potent than heroin," lead researcher Kim Janda said at the conference. "Moreover, many patients receiving treatment relapse."
Earlier this summer, the same research team announced they had developed the first vaccine against an opioid, which effectively blocks the "high" of heroin. As shown by a trial carried out on monkeys, the vaccination lasts eight months and appears to have no side effects. Unlike methadone, a treatment currently used for heroin addiction, it is not an opioid. Methadone works by taking up the opioid receptor and preventing heroin from binding to it. Instead, these vaccines work by attacking the opioid molecules themselves.
The researchers say their data indicates that the vaccine, paired with other treatments, makes kicking the habit easier, as well as redcues the risk of relapse in addicts recovering from addiction. They also claim it could be used in the instance of drugs being used as a terrorist weapon.
They are also working on another vaccine for captagon, aka “chemical courage” or fenethylline, an amphetamine-like drug that’s becoming a growing problem in the Middle East.