A recent study conducted by a group of Texas researchers teased the development of a fentanyl vaccine, an innovation that offers hope in the face of America's longstanding drug epidemic.
Since October 2022, the medical landscape has been awash with reports concerning a novel fentanyl vaccine. Called a “game changer,” this innovation stands to level the playing field in America’s ongoing battle against opioid addiction.
America’s ‘opioid crisis,’ a blight as destructive as it is sweeping, continues to claim over 150 lives daily. From 2021 to 2022, over 80,590 drug overdose deaths involved an opioid, “with 71,450 (66.5%) involving synthetic opioids, primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl or fentanyl analogs,” the CDC reported in a July 2022 statement. The death toll peaked in March 2022, reaching a staggering total of 81,409 deaths. Considering these parameters, the introduction of a vaccine that functions to reduce opioid-involved fatalities could be a tipping point in the nation’s longstanding struggle with drug abuse.
The epidemic, outlined in three distinct ‘waves,’ began in the 1990s, when the number of opioid-related deaths swelled following an increase in clinicians’ prescribing of opioids for the treatment of pain. The second wave of the epidemic began in 2010, coinciding with a rise in the popularity of heroin and the frequency of heroin-related deaths. The final wave, characterized by an upsurge in fatalities involving synthetic and illicitly manufactured opioids like fentanyl, began in 2013.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is notorious for being up to fifty times more potent than heroin and one hundred times stronger than morphine. Shockingly, two milligrams of fentanyl—an amount equivalent to about three grains of salt—is considered a potentially lethal dose. There are two forms of the substance, pharmaceutical fentanyl and illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF). Used in hospice as well as postoperative care, and administered to patients with advanced terminal illnesses, pharmaceutical fentanyl is approved for treating severe pain. The latter form of the substance, however, is synthesized illicitly and distributed through illegal drug markets. Due to its potency, IMF is frequently added to other drugs, making them affordable, highly addictive, and dangerous. Moreover, owing to its potency and ubiquity in the global drug market, fentanyl has not only helped perpetuate the national drug epidemic but is now the leading cause of overdose deaths in America.
A new fentanyl vaccine, a “breakthrough discovery” that has been six years in the making, stands to change all this. The brainchild of a team of researchers at the University of Houston (UH), the vaccine stimulates the production of anti-fentanyl antibodies that, when exposed to the substance, will bind to and prevent it from entering the brain and inducing a euphoric high. This, in turn, will limit the drug’s toxic effects on the user’s body—which, in cases of overdose, may prove lifesaving. Naloxone, an FDA-approved medication that can rapidly reverse opioid overdose, is considered the gold standard in the treatment of acute drug overdose. However, managing instances of overdose with short-acting naloxone is not necessarily effective, as several doses of the medication are often needed to reverse the toxicity of fentanyl. The vaccine, in contrast, is “a completely different strategy of treating an individual with opioid use disorder,” said Dr. Colin Haile, the study’s lead author. Whereas naloxone is administered to reverse fentanyl poisoning ‘post-facto,’ the vaccine altogether prevents overdose.
The implications of this vaccine are far-reaching, holding promise for current and former addicts—about 80% of whom may relapse—as well. “The breakthrough discovery could have major implications for the nation’s opioid epidemic by becoming a relapse prevention agent for people trying to quit using opioids,” a UH news release reported. Although details regarding when the vaccine will become available to the public have not yet been announced, medical experts and victims of drug abuse wait with bated breath. The end of America’s opioid crisis may be in sight, after all.
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