A vaccine that might help combat the opioid epidemic has performed well in early animal testing, researchers report.
The vaccine contains antibodies that are effective against several synthetic opioids, including fentanyl and the even deadlier carfentanil.
Tests in mice showed that the vaccine blocked the pain-numbing effects of synthetic opioids and also protected the mice against overdose from the drugs, according to researchers at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.
Of the estimated 72,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2017, about 30,000 were caused by synthetic opioids, the study authors said.
Because research with animals often doesn’t yield the same results in humans, the investigators have started to develop human antibodies to synthetic opioids, and the team plans to test their effectiveness in the future.
“When it comes to the very powerful opioid carfentanil, the current treatment for this opioid’s induced lethality does not work very well — it has no staying power,” said study leader Kim Janda.
“Antibodies persist longer, and thus have enormous promise for addressing both opioid addiction as well as overdose,” he added in a news release from the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology.
Along with protecting drug users, this type of vaccine might protect people at risk from contact with synthetic opioids, such as first responders, the study authors suggested.
“These antibodies could be used to protect police, EMTs and other first responders from inadvertent acute fentanyl exposure,” Janda said. “A canine version might even one day be used to protect drug-sniffing dogs.”
The findings were scheduled for presentation Dec. 13 at the annual meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, in Hollywood, Fla. Until published in a peer-reviewed journal, research presented at meetings should be considered preliminary.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more on the opioid epidemic.