Federal government working on Opioid Vaccine

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When an opioid enters the bloodstream (top), it crosses into the brain, where it can act on the target receptor to cause psychotropic effects, addiction, and overdose. Opioid vaccines (bottom) trigger the body to create antibodies that bind to opioid molecules and prevent them from entering the central nervous system, thus preventing negative effects.

Currently, at least three early-stage clinical trials of potential opioid vaccines are underway, including a heroin vaccine.

Opioid vaccines are medical therapies designed to block opioids, such as heroin and fentanyl, from entering the brain or spinal cord to prevent addiction and other negative effects. According to the United States Government Accountability Office, the advantage over some current treatment methods include less medical supervision and no potential for abuse.

Researchers are hoping to address addiction and overdose as well as protect first responders who might accidentally come into contact with deadly opioids that can be absorbed through the skin.

More than 10 million people in the United States abused opioids such as heroin and fentanyl in 2017, and there were over 47,000 opioid-related overdose deaths.

While opioid vaccine studies were first proposed as early as the 1970s, clinical trials have so far been unsuccessful. As of 2019, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved any opioid vaccines for use.

Opioid molecules have specific chemical structures that the vaccines are designed to create an immune response against for patients. The immune system learns to identify opioids with specific antibodies so the body can respond if it enters the bloodstream in the future.

Unlike some current treatment options, opioid vaccines do not carry the risk of abuse. This helps patients at high risk of abusing another medication, such as methadone.

Unfotunately, patients can have other infections that alter immune responses which may limit the effectiveness of vaccines. Also, the biological mechanism of opioid vaccines is not as well understood as infectious disease vaccines.

The vaccines can last months to years which limits the need for medical supervision.

The vaccines currently in development are targeting specific opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, which will not interfere with most drug treatment or pain management therapies.

Since the vaccines are specific it would take multiple vaccines to provide full immunity and another issue would be fentanyl can easily be altered which complicates the development of vaccines.

Vaccines could be given to individuals at risk of accidental exposure to opioids, such as law enforcement, military, and first responders.

To see a full list of opportunities and challenges, check out the U.S. GAO website for further information.

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