Vaccines for Fentanyl and Heroin Set for Trials in 2024

3 min read
Image by Alexandra_Koch on Pixabay

Image by Alexandra_Koch on Pixabay

Reseach is progressing rapidly on a significant additional weapon in the battle against the ongoing opioid crisis and its ever-worsening avalanche of overdose deaths.

Since the turn of the 21st century, the opioid epidemic has been one of the worst public health disasters affecting the United States. Over the past two decades, fatal overdoses have risen continually, with over 106,000 overdose deaths reported in 2021, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such deaths have doubled since just 2015, and more than quintupled from less than 20,000 since 2001.[1]

Although heroin use continues to be involved in fatal overdoses, synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl) are currently the main driver of drug overdose deaths. Opioids were involved in 80,411 overdose deaths in 2021—75.4% of all drug overdose deaths, and nearly 88% of opioid-involved overdose deaths involved synthetic opioids.[2]

While there is no silver bullet for this massive problem, a potential partial solution is on the horizon. Vaccines designed to help protect people from opioid overdoses are currently in development. Researchers at the University of Montana Center for Translational Medicine, the University of Washington Center for Medication Development for Substance Use Disorders, and other partners are nearing human trials for vaccines to help prevent fentanyl and heroin drug overdoses.

Funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, these vaccines work by prompting the body to produce fentanyl-specific antibodies that bind the drug in the blood and prevent it from entering the brain. Thus far they have only been tested on mice, rats, and pigs, but the results (published in the journal NPJ Vaccines) indicate these vaccines have the potential to provide a safe and long-lasting preventive treatment to combat opioid overdoses in humans.[3]

Human trials of heroin and fentanyl vaccines are likely to begin in 2024. According to the researchers, the first vaccine slated for Phase I clinical trials in humans will target heroin, followed shortly thereafter with a vaccine to protect against fentanyl. If and when the safety and initial efficacy of the vaccines are established through the first clinical trials, a combined vaccine targeting both heroin and fentanyl is planned for development.[4]

At this point, obviously the duration that the overdose protection/immunity these vaccines will provide in humans is speculative. It will be determined through Phases I and II of the clinical trials with humans which will follow subjects over time to evaluate how long the vaccines’ antibodies against opioids will last. The hope is that the vaccines could provide durable protection against overdose for up to two to four years.

With a pervasive problem such as a public health crisis there are no magic bullets nor quick fixes, and a safe and effective vaccine won’t end opioid overdose deaths. However, in the meantime, it could help save lives, and all actions that have the potential to protect life and safety have meaning and value.

Copyright 2023 Dan Mager, MSW

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