(CN) – Researchers say a new vaccine currently being tested on lab mice may one day help curb the opioid epidemic and assist first responders who are inadvertently exposed to powerful drugs like fentanyl, according to a study released on Wednesday.
The synthetic opioid fentanyl is exponentially more potent than morphine and is one of the deadliest drugs in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of the 63,000 overdose deaths reported in 2016, fentanyl accounted for 28 percent of deaths, edging out heroin, cocaine and other legal and illegal narcotics. Of the approximately 72,000 overdoses reported in 2017, some 30,000 were related to synthetic opioids.
Researchers at The Scripps Research Institute say they have created a vaccine with opioid antibodies that can work against several synthetic opioids and could help treat people’s addiction by blocking the pain relief they receive from the drug.
Scripps researcher and chemistry professor Kim Janda said the team looked at the effect of its vaccine on opioid antibodies and how lab mice reacted to pain. Mice were given a synthetic opioid like fentanyl and then the vaccine to see if they reacted to pain more quickly, as opposed to mice who were only given the opioid. Those mice moved more slowly when they felt heat from a beam of light.
Janda’s team also found the vaccine could protect mice from overdose deaths: Vaccinated mice who were given fatal doses of fentanyl lived, and those who weren’t died. Researchers are now developing the same antibodies used in their vaccine for human testing.
“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 Janda. “Antibodies persist longer, and thus have enormous promise for addressing both opioid addiction as well as overdose.”
The vaccine could one day be used to treat addiction, but also act as a preventative measure for first responders who come into contact with fentanyl when responding to overdose calls, conducting traffic stops, arrests and searches.
Fentanyl poses such a great danger to first responders that the Office of National Drug Control Policy has issued guidelines for those who come into contact with the drug, which can come in pill or powder form.
The Scripps Research Institute study was published in the international journal of science Nature on Wednesday.