Researchers at the University of Houston may have developed a “vaccine” that blocks the harmful effects of fentanyl when it enters the brain. The findings, published late last month in the journal Pharmaceutics, were described as a potential “cure” to address an epidemic that has claimed thousands of American lives from drug use.
The vaccine consists of a hapten similar to fentanyl, a small molecule that, when combined with a large carrier protein, causes the production of antibodies that bind to it. In the case of this vaccine, that protein is actually a genetically inactivated diphtheria toxin known as CRM197; It is already used in several vaccines approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Once antibodies are produced, they bind not only to fentanyl-like hapten molecules, but also to any fentanyl molecules present in the bloodstream. Therefore, those molecules cannot enter the brain, preventing any feelings of euphoria. Ultimately, they pass out of the body through the kidneys.
“We believe these findings could have a significant impact on a very serious problem that has plagued society for years: opioid abuse,” said Associate Principal Scientist Colin Hale. “Our vaccine is able to generate anti-fentanyl antibodies that bind to ingested fentanyl and prevent it from entering the brain. […] Therefore, the person will not feel the euphoric effects and may ‘get back on the bandwagon’ for sobriety.
Human clinical trials of the vaccine are planned to begin soon, as it has only been tested in mice. Clinical studies on the vaccine did not cause adverse side effects in rodents.
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