Scientists believe they’ve developed a vaccine that will block fentanyl from entering the brain and stop users from getting high — a breakthrough being hailed as a “game changer” in the fight against the opioid overdose epidemic.

In testing on rats, the vaccine “produced significant amounts” of anti-fentanyl antibodies that clung to the deadly addictive synthetic opioid, according to a study printed in the journal Pharmaceutics.

That prevented the drug “from entering the brain, allowing it to be eliminated out of the body via the kidneys,” said lead author Colin Haile of the University of Houston’s Drug Discovery Institute.

“Thus, the individual will not feel the euphoric effects and can ‘get back on the wagon’ to sobriety,” said Haile, predicting it “could have a significant impact on a very serious problem plaguing society for years.”

Lead author Colin Haile, of the University of Houston's Drug Discovery Institute.
Lead author Colin Haile hopes the vaccine “could have a significant impact on a very serious problem plaguing society for years.”

Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin, and a dose of only 2 milligrams — the size of two grains of rice — can prove fatal.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 71,000 Americans died of fentanyl overdoses last year — almost 195 a day — by far the biggest cause of the overall 107,622 fatal overdoses.

The vaccine’s preclinical results “demonstrate efficacy in neutralizing” fentanyl, making it “a potential therapeutic for [overuse] and overdose in humans,” the study stated.

Another of the Texas university’s professors involved in the study, Therese Kosten, called it a potential “game changer.”  

“Fentanyl use and overdose is a particular treatment challenge that is not adequately addressed with current medications,” Kosten said.

Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and killed more than 71,000 in the US last year.
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Those treatments used at the moment are short-lasting and need multiple doses, Kosten said, while the vaccine would effectively also work as a “relapse prevention agent,” the study said.

The team plans to start manufacturing clinical-grade vaccines in the coming months with plans to start trials on humans.

The researchers said the vaccine did not cause any adverse side effects in the rats it was used on, and said the positive fentanyl-blocking results came from low, safe doses.

They also “expect minimal side effects in clinical trials” because the main components are already widely used and tested.

Also, the antibodies proved specific to fentanyl, meaning “a vaccinated person would still be able to be treated for pain relief with other opioids,” Haile noted. 

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