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Experts Collaborate in Quest for Vaccine Targeting Opioid Addiction

July 19, 2019

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has identified vaccine development as a high-priority area in the effort to combat the opioid epidemic. NIH funding is bringing together experts from the substance use and vaccine research communities to accelerate the pace of discovery.

A leading vaccine researcher who is involved in multiple NIH-funded projects, including research specifically targeting fentanyl, tells Addiction Professional that progress in vaccine development in one area would logically translate to other drugs of abuse.

“What we learn about using a vaccine to target fentanyl, and which delivery methods and doses would work best, can directly apply to [understanding] drugs such as heroin and cocaine,” says Jay Evans, PhD, director of the University of Montana's Center for Translational Medicine.

The university announced this month that it has been awarded a $3.3 million contract from NIH to develop a vaccine targeting opioid addiction. The project will combine the vaccine-related knowledge of Evans' center, which has worked on vaccine development for a variety of illnesses for more than two decades, and the substance use-specific expertise of researchers at the University of Minnesota and the Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute. Evans' group began its work within the pharmaceutical industry before moving into university-based research.

Evans believes that the partnerships made possible through NIH funding could result in human testing of vaccines that generate antibodies to bind fentanyl within the next two to three years.

Convening experts

Last fall, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases convened drug abuse and vaccine research teams to encourage joint strategies to combat the opioid crisis. The partnership between the University of Montana and the researchers in Minnesota grew out of that meeting.

“The idea of using vaccines to treat opioid addiction seems strange to most people, but preclinical and clinical evidence suggest this approach can work,” Evans said in a University of Montana news release. “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 the fentanyl hapten—the part of the drug recognized by the immune system—is linked to a carrier protein.”

Evans explains that because fentanyl stimulates opioid receptors at comparatively low doses, a relatively low antibody dose could be effective in blocking its effects. In the case of a heroin vaccine, more antibody would be needed in order to be effective.

The Center for Translational Medicine was established at the university two years ago and assists in translating preclinical research discovery to practical healthcare application.

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