Researchers Are Developing A Vaccine For Some Major Designer Drugs

By May Wilkerson 02/18/16

With use of designer drugs on the rise, scientists from the Scripps Research Institute have banded together to create an antidote that could curb addiction and even overdose.

Researchers Are Developing A Vaccine For Some Major Designer Drugs
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Fentanyl is a synthetic “designer” drug that mimics the effects of opioids (the main ingredient in heroin and prescription painkillers, like Oxy and Percocet). The drug’s use is growing across the US, with some dealers mixing or substituting it with heroin to decrease costs and increase potency. Hoping to curb addiction and possibly prevent fatal overdoses, scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in California are developing a groundbreaking new vaccine that blocks the effects of synthetic opioids. Early trials of the vaccine were successful in preventing fentanyl from reaching the brain, according to a new study published this week.

Fentanyl moves from the blood to the brain where it binds to opiate receptors, numbing pain and boosting dopamine levels, which triggers a feeling of euphoria. It is often mixed in with illegal drugs (like heroin) to increase their effects. Because of its potency, it also increases the chances that someone will overdose and die. In response to rising demand, various derivatives of fentanyl have cropped up around the world. The new vaccine is expected to block the effects of all of them.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 200% rise in overdose deaths involving opioids from 2000 to 2014. Fentanyl and its derivatives are thought to play a major role in this increase. Despite available treatments like naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, and methadone, which helps addicts to wean off opioids, many people still relapse. “These treatments are working for some people, but there is clearly a gap that needs attention,” said Janda.

The new vaccine contains molecules that are similar in structure to fentanyl, which trains the immune system to recognize fentanyl as an “invader.” The body then releases antibodies which bind to the drug as it enters the bloodstream, preventing it from reaching the brain. Someone who has been vaccinated is then immune to the euphoric effects of the drug, which could discourage them from seeking it out and taking it. 

The antibodies that block the drug from reaching the brain also would prevent fatal overdoses. “To the best of our knowledge, our active vaccine is the first to ablate lethal doses of any drug of abuse,” said TSRI Research Associate Atsushi Kimishima, co-author of the study with TSRI graduate student Paul Bremer. “This surprised us the most,” said Bremer. So far, the vaccine only works on fentanyl and its derivatives, but not opioid painkillers, like oxycodone. This means people who are vaccinated could still use prescription painkillers if needed for medical reasons.

Researchers hope to expand the vaccine so it will also block the effects of heroin. “Since heroin is often cut with fentanyl derivatives, a combination vaccine targeting both opioids would be worth investigating,” Bremer said.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.