(CTN News) – U.S. opioid addiction has shortened life expectancy and caused untold suffering. Since fentanyl is so potent compared to other opioids, it has been particularly deadly.
A new study in rats, however, may offer a glimmer of hope: Scientists found that they could produce antibodies that bind to fentanyl in the bloodstream and prevent its negative effects on behavior and physiological functions.
A study published in Pharmaceutics in late October details the work.
Why is fentanyl such a problem?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin. The drug was originally developed for pharmaceutical purposes, but it is now widely used as a recreational drug. A small amount is needed to produce a high (although first responders are not at risk if they only touch it).
Due to its potency, the drug is cheaper to source than others, and is commonly used as an adulterant in other drugs, such as heroin, MDMA, and cocaine. The risk of overdosing is high with fentanyl use.
According to the authors of the new study, who are primarily based in Houston, Texas, fentanyl use and overdose are particularly challenging problems to treat with current medications. Methadone, one of the most common addiction treatments, often requires regular clinic visits.
People usually relapse even with support. Additionally, Naxolone, the treatment of choice for opioid overdose, often requires multiple doses to work, and is in short supply at the moment. Vaccines with a longer shelf life, on the other hand, could be a much better option in terms of convenience and effectiveness.
What are the benefits of a fentanyl vaccine?
Fentanyl vaccines work by triggering an immune response similar to flu shots. In the new study, researchers made their vaccine using a deactivated diphtheria protein already used in multiple FDA-approved shots, a molecule similar to fentanyl, a molecular bridge to link the two together, and a compound known to boost immune response in other vaccines.
A fentanyl-addiction vaccine aims to get the body to develop antibodies against it by training it to recognize it as a threat.
After repeated exposure to opioids, some people’s immune systems produce antibodies against opioids on their own. Vaccines could accelerate that process.
The researchers tested their vaccine in what way?
Using 60 rats, the scientists tested whether the vaccine produced antibodies and reduced fentanyl brain levels. Post-vaccination, the researchers tested the drug’s effects on smaller sample sizes of 32 and 28 rats.
In order to determine their responses while on fentanyl and other opioids, researchers ran several control and baseline tests on the rats.
One of the tests measured how quickly rats moved their tails away from painful heat sources. Using a lever and food rewards, trained rats were timed to pull a lever. Besides collecting physical data, they also measured oxygen levels and heart rate.
How does it affect people?
Humans rarely achieve the same outcomes as rodents. This research will not result in a vaccine for at least a few years. The research, however, could contribute to the development of future treatments as well as our understanding of opioids, addictions, and overdoses.
In a press release, Colin Haile, an addiction researcher at the University of Houston’s Drug Discovery Institute in Texas and the lead study author, said the findings could have a profound impact on society. In spite of a grim and worsening trend, it is a welcome glimmer of hope.