Researchers reported at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society today that they are developing a vaccine to guard against the effects of fentanyl in combination with heroin – a deadly duo that is claiming a growing number of lives as the opioid crisis worsens in the U.S.
“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 in prepared remarks. “Moreover, many patients receiving treatment relapse.”
Combating opioid use with a vaccine is challenging, since the immune system struggles to detect small molecules. Traditionally, scientists have overcome this problem by linking opioids to a larger biological molecule, like a protein.
Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute said that they have developed a vaccine that works against fentanyl and are developing a combination vaccine.
In June, Janda and his team of scientists reported developing a vaccine against heroin that proved effective in a monkey model.
Traditionally, treatment for people abusing opioids involves methadone – a therapy designed to block a person’s opioid receptors and stop heroin from binding to it. In contrast, the researchers’ vaccine triggers the production of antibodies, which bind to the heroin molecule and prevent it from ever getting to the opioid receptor.
The vaccine is specific for heroin and doesn’t work for other opioids, according to the researchers, so it could be used in combination with methadone.
The immunotherapeutic product is still far from hitting the market. But as the opioid crisis continues to intensify within the U.S., the need for innovative solutions becomes more urgent.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump said that he is preparing to declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency. This is a reversal from an announcement made earlier this month by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who said that they would not make such a move.
“The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially right now it is an emergency,” Trump reportedly said, according to The Hill. “It’s a national emergency. We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis.”
But since Trump made the announcement, he has not taken any formal action to declare a national emergency.