Updated
September 11th, 2019

Opioid Use Disorder Vaccines Nearing Finish Line

Opioid vaccine candidates depend on exposure to opioid molecules to produce an immune response

poppy field

The current opioid crisis has reinvigorated interest in the development of therapeutic vaccines for opioid use disorder. 

According to new non-human research from the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), researchers are testing a vaccine that is meant to block the effects of heroin and fentanyl in patients with opioid use disorder (OUD). 

This is important research since 11.5 million people in the USA self-reported that they had personally misused prescription opioids during 2015.   

This study’s lead author Matthew L. Banks, Pharm.D., Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the VCU School of Medicine, explained in a press release, "Anti-opioid vaccines represent one promising research area for opioid use disorder, including relapse and overdose because they are mechanistically different from current FDA-approved therapeutics such as naloxone, methadone, and naltrexone, which target opioid receptors." 

Dr. Banks wrote," The vaccines prompt an individual's body to generate anti-opioid antibodies." 

"If a person injects heroin or fentanyl after they have been vaccinated, those antibodies are there to capture the drugs in the bloodstream, which should prevent people from getting high." 

The Scripps vaccine and other immunotherapies work by prompting the immune system to make antibodies that prevent drug molecules, such as heroin or fentanyl, from crossing the blood-brain barrier into the central nervous system, blocking the effects of opioids. 

Opioids include most prescription analgesics as well as products of the poppy plant, such as opium, morphine, and codeine. 

Similar to how the flu vaccine triggers an immune response through exposure to flu viruses, opioid vaccines depend on some exposure to targeted opioid molecules to produce an immune response. 

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Opioid molecules do not naturally produce an immune response, so they are attached to clinically available carrier proteins, such as the tetanus vaccine, to prompt the immune system to start producing antibodies. 

Scientists also added a chemical called an adjuvant to the vaccine to boost the immune response. 

Dr. Banks’s team is testing the efficacy of the vaccine and predicting how an immunized person might respond when faced with the choice of drug use or engaging with a nondrug reinforcer, such as work, friends or family. 

He is currently in the process of submitting test results for peer review.

Researchers at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research are testing other anti-heroin and anti-oxycodone vaccines.   

“Although we are still in the early phase, this study suggests that vaccination can be used together with standard therapies to prevent the withdrawal and craving symptoms associated with opioid withdrawal,” said Dr. Gary Matyas, Chief of Adjuvants and Formulations for the U.S. Military Research Program, WRAIR. 

“We hope to give people a window so they can overcome their addiction,” said Dr. Matyas in a press release. 

Published by Precision Vaccinations