Updated
September 11th, 2019

$3.3 Million Dollars to Develop Opioid Addiction Vaccine

Opioid addiction preventive vaccine would contain fentanyl hapten removing positive reaction to the drug

lab researchers

The University of Montana has received a $3.3 million contract from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop an innovative vaccine targeting opioid addiction.

This new contract is a result of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Institute on Drug Abuse meeting in 2018 to bring drug abuse and vaccine research teams together with a goal of finding solutions to the growing opioid-use epidemic.

As a result, this partnership has now generated new research funds and a promising new vaccine candidate.

But, this effort is in its early stages, with years of human clinical trials ahead.

This is important news since more than 100 people in the United States died each day in 2018 after overdosing on opioids.

Opioids, used medically for pain relief, have analgesic and central nervous system depressant effects as well as the potential to cause euphoria. 

Opioid use disorder (OUD) can involve the misuse of prescribed opioid medications, the use of diverted opioid medications, or the use of illicitly obtained heroin. OUD is typically a chronic, relapsing illness, associated with significantly increased rates of morbidity and mortality.

The principal investigator on the 2-year award is Dr. Jay Evans, director of the University of Montana (UM)’s Center for Translational Medicine and a research professor in the Division of Biological Sciences. Other investigators on the award are Drs. David Burkhart, Kendal Ryter and Helene Bazin-Lee from UM in Missoula, Marco Pravetoni from the University of Minnesota, and Paul Pentel and Mark LeSage from Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute.

“While we’ve made meaningful progress in Montana to prevent opioid abuse from occurring and to decrease overdoses, this invisible epidemic still steals away too many lives in our state and across the nation,” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said in a press release during July 2019.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the total "economic burden" of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year.

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Opioid-use disorders are associated with heroin and prescription opioids, as well as synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. 

As an alternative to current small-molecule-based pharmacotherapies targeting opioid receptors – such as methadone or naltrexone – vaccines offer a promising safe and cost-effective strategy to treat opioid use disorders and reduce the risk of overdoses.

“The idea of using vaccines to treat opioid addiction seems strange to most people, but preclinical and clinical evidence suggests this approach can work,” Dr. Evans said. 

“Antibodies generated by the vaccine bind fentanyl and prevent it from crossing the blood-brain barrier. The vaccine itself has no drug-like effects because of the fentanyl hapten – the part the drug recognized by the immune system – is linked to a carrier protein.”

“We are applying what we have learned about traditional infectious disease vaccines to combat the growing epidemic of opioid-use disorders,” concluded Dr. Evans.

UM scientists at the Center for Translational Medicine have worked on vaccines, adjuvants and delivery systems for over 20 years.

Established in 2017, the UM Center for Translational Medicine is a multidisciplinary research center that assists faculty, staff, and students in the translation of preclinical research discoveries from bench to bedside. Contact: Jay Evans, director, UM Center for Translational Medicine, 406-381-0573, [email protected].

Look for research summaries on a broader range of opioid-related topics throughout NIDA’s Web pages on opioids​