For the second year in a row, life expectancy in the United States declined due to an opioid crisis. Scientists have high hopes for a new opioid vaccine developed by the US military, that shows promising results in mice and rats.
Of all overdosed deaths in the US, more than half were blamed on opioids. This highly addictive family of drugs includes illegal substances like heroin, prescription pain relievers like oxycodone, and a synthetic drug that is 100 times more powerful than heroin, fentanyl.
“Two years in a row is quite shocking,” Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics, commented shorter life expectancy in the US for Seeker. “The key factor in all this is the increase in drug overdose deaths.”
A potential solution in treating opioid addiction came from scientists at the US Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR). Developed vaccine blocks the heroin from reaching the brain in mice and rats. They recently published their work in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry.
After injection, the heroine vaccine releases antibodies into the blood that prevent the drug from breaking through the blood-brain barrier. Even if a heroin addicts take the drug, they won’t get high. The vaccine includes the Army Liposome Formulation, that boosts the body’s immune response to a toxin.
“All vaccines to substances of abuse function through causing the body to make antibodies that bind the drug of interest and prevent it from entering the brain,” said Dr. Gary Matyas, chief of adjuvants and formulations for the US Military Research Program.
Matyas and his group tested their vaccine against an older vaccine developed by WRAIR and found that the new one is more effective and very stable. New vaccine also works with hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, oxymorphone, and codeine. Furthermore, because it lowers the toxic effect of high doses of heroin, it could be used for preventing overdoses.
“Its stability should increase its shelf-life and keep it from degrading during vaccine manufacturing and storage,” Matyas said.
The antibodies in the vaccine do not bind to fentanyl, one of the most broadly abused synthetic forms of heroin. Since the possibility of overdose is very high, some researchers from The Scripps Research Institute have prioritized the development of a treatment method for fentanyl abuse. They tested heroin vaccine and fentanyl vaccine in mice and found them to be similarly effective.
WRAIR vaccine does not interfere with opioids like methadone and buprenorphine. It is a positive finding since these drugs are often used in the current treatment methods for opioid addiction. Importantly, the vaccine did not react with naloxone, used in emergency overdose rescue treatments, and pain relievers like ibuprofen or aspirin.
Although researchers have best hopes, it could be several years before the vaccine is commercially available.
“Vaccines typically take many years to develop, test, and manufacture, and we are still in the early stages,” Matyas said. “We are currently pursuing funding for a clinical trial (and) we have licensed the product to Opiant Pharmaceuticals to continue development and manufacture at the appropriate point.”
WRAIR and Scripps Research Institute vaccines are not the only one in development, but the combination of methods will be necessary to end one of the worst drug epidemics in the US. More than 90 people die every day from an opioid overdose in the US. By minimizing cravings, this new vaccine offers one additional solution for opioid treatment.
“It’s unlikely that any one therapy or strategy will end the opioid crisis, but we hope that a vaccine will be a new tool in the toolbox,” Matyas said. “Many different types of treatments and medications will be necessary to meet the diverse needs of individuals addicted to opioids.”
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By Andreja Gregoric, MSc