Fentanyl vaccine poised to be 'game changer' in fight against addiction

The end to the fentanyl crisis may be in sight, thanks to researchers in Texas — they say they've developed a "game changer" vaccine for addiction treatment.

Fentanyl vaccine poised to be 'game changer' in fight against addiction

The end to the fentanyl crisis may be in sight, thanks to a team of researchers in Texas who claim they have successfully developed a vaccine that could be a "game changer" in addiction treatment.

A team led by the University of Houston has developed what they say is a fentanyl vaccine that can block the synthetic opioid from entering the brain — essentially curing addiction by eliminating the euphoric high.

"There’s no question about it. We developed something that’s a new game changer," Dr. Colin Haile, a research associate professor of psychology at UH and the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistics (TIMES) told Fox News during a recent tour of the research facility.

"It's a completely different strategy of treating an individual with opioid use disorder."

Their vaccine works in an entirely different way, said Dr. Haile, from other treatments for opioid use disorder and overdose deaths. 

It essentially produces antibodies much like other vaccines make those antibodies against a virus or bacteria. 

Dr. Haile’s vaccine does the same by blocking fentanyl from entering the user’s brain. 

Proteins are used to keep the drug in the bloodstream — then it is flushed out through the kidneys.

"It's similar to the hepatitis B vaccine. The vaccine stimulates the body to make antibodies against fentanyl," Dr. Haile said, "and if an individual consumes fentanyl, those antibodies will bind to the drug and prevent it from getting into the brain."

He added, "Without the vaccine, fentanyl penetrates the brain quite readily, stimulates euphoric centers, and also can stimulate parts of the brain that control respiration, leading to overdose and death." 

Testing on lab rats and mice showed very promising results, said Haile, and he believes they will see the same findings once human trials begin in the coming weeks.

"We have done extensive studies in mice and rats and the effect of the vaccine was quite dramatic," he says. We demonstrated that, yes, the vaccine prevents fentanyl from penetrating the brain. It keeps it in the blood. And then the fentanyl is removed from the body."

He believes the vaccine could be available to the public within two years, he said.

"Given that the vaccine is already made up of components that are already on the market and already have been tested in humans, we feel that when it comes time to submit our application to the FDA, we are hopeful that the approval process will be expedited."

Dr. Haile and his team began working on the vaccine nearly six years ago when an unprecedented rise in overdose death started to surface. The vaccine was developed from two protein strands already used in other vaccine treatments.

Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids have become the primary cause of overdose deaths in the U.S. and it’s estimated that over 110,000 occurred between August 2021 and August 2022 – a stunning record for a single 12-month period.

With over 150 people dying every day from overdoses of synthetic opioids, according to the CDC, the vaccine comes at a crucial time as the drug crisis grips the country.

"Unfortunately, starting about 10 years ago or so, the manufacture of fentanyl was increased, and it became much more part of the mainstream in terms of illicit drug markets, to see it first being part of the drug supply and more recently, just completely taking over for any other illicit opioid," Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which consults with Dr. Haile’s research team, said to Fox News. 

"So, heroin [use] is dropping in many parts of the country because fentanyl is cheaper, easier to smuggle, and produces the same brain effects."

The vaccine development has been funded by the Department of Defense, where officials tell Fox News that backed the project after the need to address the prevalence of addiction among the families of many service members.

Dr. Haile points out that this vaccine would be best for those who have already undergone detox, as it will prevent relapses.

"This vaccine is for individuals that want to quit. It is not for individuals that do not want to quit," he says. 

"A vaccinated individual — if they do not want to quit their opioid addiction, they can take other drugs, other opioid drugs, or just other drugs that are vaccine antibodies do not target."

People have already been contacting the team at the University of Houston asking to be added to the upcoming trials — something that Dr. Haile says underscores the need for this treatment.

"We need this. We need this vaccine. And there's so many people that can be helped," he says.

"It needs to happen, and it will happen."

Fox News' Evan Goldman contributed to this report.