Feb. 5, 2021 -- New experimental vaccines could stop the worst effects of synthetic fentanyl and carfentanil, two drugs that have been major drivers of the opioid epidemic in the U.S., according to a new study published in ACS Chemical Biology on Wednesday.
During several experiments in mice, the vaccines prevented respiratory depression, which is the main cause of overdose deaths. The vaccines also reduced the amount of drug that was distributed to the brain. Once in the brain, synthetic opioids prompt the body to slow down breathing, and when too much of the drug is consumed, breathing can stop.
“Synthetic opioids are not only extremely deadly but also addictive and easy to manufacture, making them a formidable public health threat, especially when the coronavirus crisis is negatively impacting mental health,” Kim Janda, PhD, a chemist at Scripps Research Institute in California who developed the vaccines, said in a statement.
Fentanyl is up to 100 times stronger than morphine, and carfentanil, which is often used by veterinarians to sedate large animals such as elephants, is up to 10,000 times stronger than morphine. Carfentanil isn’t as well-known as a street drug, but it’s being used more often as an additive in heroin and cocaine.
“We’ve shown it is possible to prevent these unnecessary deaths by eliciting antibodies that stop the drug from reaching the brain,” he said.
The vaccines could be used in emergency situations to treat overdoses and as a therapy for those with substance abuse disorders, Janda said. In addition, the vaccines could protect military officers who are exposed to opioids as chemical weapons, and they may also help opioid-sniffing police dogs to train for the job.
The vaccines are still in the early stages of testing, but the latest data “brings us hope that this approach will work to treat a number of opioid-related maladies,” Janda said.
In December, the CDC reported that more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths happened in the U.S. between May 2019 and May 2020, which was the highest number ever recorded in a 12-month period. Synthetic opioids, particularly illegally created fentanyl, were to blame.
“Unfortunately, the rise in carfentanil and fentanyl overdose incidents is placing further strain on already overwhelmed public health systems currently battling a pandemic,” Janda said. “We look forward to continuing our vaccine research and translating it to the clinic, where we can begin to make an impact on the opioid crisis.”