Opioid Deterrent Vaccine Could Reduce Overdose Deaths

A new vaccine prevents euphoria associated with opioids.

Researchers recently created a novel vaccine that could potentially combat the opioid epidemic and reduce deaths associated with overdoses.

The vaccine, created at the Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), blocks the effects of oxycodone and hydrocodone in animal models and, if used in humans, could decrease the amount of fatal opioid overdoses experienced.

“We saw both blunting of the drug’s effects and, remarkably, prevention of drug lethality,” said TSRI professor Kim D. Janda, PhD. “The protection against overdose death was unforeseen but clearly of enormous potential clinical benefit.”

This new vaccine was designed to harness the immune system’s ability to destroy foreign pathogens, according to a study published by ACS Chemical Biology.

Opioids are created in a way that reduces pain and induces euphoria when the drug reaches the associated receptors. For the vaccine, scientists used a traditional opioid structure, plus a molecule that triggers an immune response.

When injected, the vaccine tells the immune system to bind with the drug and prevent it from circulating throughout the body, according to the study. These vaccine-derived antibodies were designed to prevent the individual taking the medication from receiving the euphoric feelings associated with taking the drug.

Researchers said this approach could potentially be advantageous over other opioid use disorder treatments, since it will not change brain chemistry like many current treatments do.

“The vaccine approach stops the drug before it even gets to the brain,” said study co-author Cody J. Wenthur, PharmD, PhD. “It’s like a preemptive strike.”

In the study, mice models that received the vaccine did not present typical symptoms of a drug high, including disregarding any pain or discomfort. Additional tests suggested that the vaccinated mice were less likely to experience a fatal overdose.

Some of the mice who received the vaccination died from the drug’s toxic effects, but the drugs took longer to cause the fatal outcome, according to the study. Researchers also discovered that the vaccine was effective for the 60-day study period, and could potentially last longer than that.

If these findings can be proven in humans, the preventive vaccine could allow additional time for individuals experiencing an overdose to receive necessary medical care.

While this oxycodone/hydrocodone vaccine is not the first to be evaluated, the current vaccine is the first to use an opioid structure in its design, according to the study.

Interestingly, researchers discovered that once the antibodies bound to the drug, it stayed in the body for extended periods of time. Although the drug was neutralized, additional studies are needed to investigate this event.

Further studies are also needed to determine optimal dose and injection schedule, and any methods to creating a more effective vaccine, the study concluded.

“Our goal was to create a vaccine that mirrored the drug’s natural structure,” said study first author Atsushi Kimishima. “Clearly this tactic provided a broadly useful opioid deterrent.”