Scientists Create a Vaccine Against Fentanyl

Researchers hope the vaccine, which blocked the drug from entering rats’ brains, could help reduce overdoses in humans

A person holding needles
More than 150 people die every day from synthetic opioids. Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Drug overdose fatalities soared to a record high during the early Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, deaths from overdoses in the United States rose to 91,799, a 30 percent spike from the previous year. Researchers say synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are partially responsible. These drugs were involved in more than half all fatal overdoses in 2020. More than 150 people die every day from synthetic opioids.  

“Fentanyl is killing Americans at an unprecedented rate,” Anne Milgram, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said in an April statement. “Drug traffickers are driving addiction and increasing their profits by mixing fentanyl with other illicit drugs. Tragically, many overdose victims have no idea they are ingesting deadly fentanyl, until it’s too late.”

Now, researchers at the University of Houston say in a statement they have a potential solution that could be a “game-changer” in the fight against opioid overdoses: a new vaccine that blocks fentanyl from entering the brain. 

In a study published in Pharmaceutics, scientists tested their vaccine on 60 rats. The immunized animals could produce anti-fentanyl antibodies that stop the drug’s effects, allowing it to exit out of the body via the kidneys. This blocks the “high” caused by fentanyl, and it would theoretically make it easier for people to quit using the drug or avoid a relapse.

“I think the research on this is fascinating,” Virginia Guy, the executive director of the Drug Education Council, tells Karris Harmon of WPMI. “Right now, this is just at the rat study level, but I think it holds some promise.”

The scientists found their vaccine did not cause adverse side effects in the rats. It also did not cross-react with other opioids, including morphine. “A vaccinated person would still be able to be treated for pain relief,” with those drugs, says lead author Colin Haile, a psychologist at the University of Houston, in the statement. 

The vaccine contains an ingredient called dmLT, which is derived from E. coli. dmLT is an adjuvant, meaning it boosts the immune system’s response to vaccines. This is a key component in inoculations against addiction, per the statement. 

While the immunization could protect people who accidentally ingest fentanyl when taking other drugs, it was designed for those who are addicted and want to quit, Haile explains to KTRK’s Briana Conner. 

“Many more people come in today saying they use fentanyl,” Philip Van Guilder, the director of community affairs and overdose prevention at Greenhouse Treatment Center in Texas who was not involved in the research, tells KTRK. “They say to you, ‘I actually don’t use heroin. I specifically buy fentanyl.’ The numbers are increasing, and it’s a very large percentage.”

Current treatments for opioid use disorder include methadone and buprenorphine, which both activate brain receptors associated with opioids, and the medication naltrexone, which blocks the effects of opioids. The success of these treatments can vary depending on the individual, access to treatment and the drug they’re addicted to, per the study. Naloxone is used to save the lives of individuals who are actively overdosing, but it is a short-term solution and does not treat the addiction. 

The next steps for the researchers are to get FDA approval for the vaccine and to begin clinical trials. The team hopes their vaccine could be sold within three or four years.

“The fact that they’re doing research to find these things gives us hope, because we have to do something,” Van Guilder tells KTRK. “What we’re doing today is not working.”