Team of UH scientists find new hope in the fight against fentanyl: A vaccine

Anti-fentanyl vaccine undergoing testing at UH

HOUSTON – A team of Houston scientists developed a vaccine that could block fentanyl from entering the brain, eliminating overdose and even death.

Colin Haile, M.D. and Ph.D. is a research associate professor at the University of Houston.

“This is not your typical vaccine where you are vaccinating an individual against a pathogen, such as a virus or bacteria. What we are vaccinating against, is a chemical and that chemical is fentanyl,” said Colin Haile, M.D., Ph.D. and research associate professor at the University of Houston.

From inside the University of Houston lab where history was made, hope was developed.

“So, when an individual is vaccinated with our vaccine, they make antibodies to fentanyl, if fentanyl is consumed by this individual those antibodies bind to fentanyl and prevent it from getting into the brain and prevent it from stimulating euphoric areas within the brain and stimulating deadly overdose effect as well, these antibodies keep it in the blood and then it is eliminated from the body,” explained Haile.

With help from his team, they just wrapped up pre-clinical trials in mice and rats – successfully preventing fentanyl overdoses and deaths within the species.

“The moment that we gave a high dose to vaccinated rats, gave a high dose of fentanyl to our rats and they just looked perfectly normal, completely blocked fentanyl’s effects, it was so dramatic, I started filming the rats because I knew the data was so remarkable I would need evidence to prove this was effective, it was astounding, to see it work again, and again, and again, across to species, many experiments, is astounding,” he said.

The scientist said he is optimistic this vaccine will be effective in humans.

“Very optimistic, and there are two reasons,” he added. A part of the vaccine is already on the market. A part of what is in our vaccine, is in two vaccines that have been on the market for quite a while, that are proving to be safe and effective, a second part of our vaccine has already been in human clinical trials, in thousands of individuals and even infants. And is proving safe and effective as well.”

Haile anticipates the vaccine will be in the arms of people in a year, best case scenario.

Haile calls it a relapse prevention agent.

“Those who go and detox, get on the proper medication, they will also get our vaccine to prevent relapse. If any some point if these individuals relapse, and more than 80% do, they will have the antibodies on board and fentanyl will not affect them, they will not overdose,” he said.

Phase one and Phase two of the clinical trial will determine how long antibodies will remain present in one’s system. This will determine the vaccine sequence.

Haile said the schedule is similar to the Hepatitis B vaccine in that a person will get an initial vaccine, a booster a few months later, and then a second booster.

The effects of Fentanyl

More than 150 people die each day from opioids like fentanyl, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is more than 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

Daniel Comeaux is Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration at the Houston Division.

“Look, the addiction is real. And as a whole right now, more people are looking for these pills, but unfortunately, there are many people out there that are just trying to take a regular medical pill for purposes, but instead, they come up with one of these fake pills, and one of these fake pills can take their life,” he said.

A Houston-area mother experienced the lasting impact these pills have on life.

“It’s been the most brutal experience, or event in our lives.” Explained Deborah Scroggins who lost her youngest child Allison to fentanyl. “She was my baby girl. She was my baby girl. She was 21 and three months when she passed.”

Allison was out with friends celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.

“That night, I guess she got ahold of what she thought was an oxycodone--went to sleep and didn’t wake up,” Scroggins said.

The mother said an investigation surrounding Allison’s death led to few questions being answered and no arrests.

“This is like murder. This is like murder. She didn’t know she was going to die. Something needs to change.” Scroggins cried.

“Look, it all goes back to the drug cartels, and the cartels, are the ones starting this, finishing it, and getting it out on the streets, and those here in Houston, that are looking to make extra money, by any means are selling these pills,” Comeaux added.

Between May and September of 2022, DEA agents seized more than 350,000 fentanyl pills in Texas, more than 154,000 of those pills had a lethal dose of the drug, according to Comeaux.

“Drug dealers come in all shapes and sizes, colors, nationals, they speak all various different languages, and they are using social media on the regular.”

Comeaux held up a picture of multi-colored pills.

“Who becomes interested in these?” Comeaux said. “Teens and kids. It looks like rainbows and candy. No this is to get you addicted and once they get you, life gets hard. Citizens in Houston are playing Russian roulette with their lives when they take one of these pills. You have a 50-percent chance of dying. That’s a problem. Even if you don’t have a kid, you’re talking about yourself, loved ones, aunts, uncles, and parents, they can end up dead by taking a pill.”

DEA agents have decoded emoji drug codes. Comeaux said people, including children, are using emojis to get their hands on drugs.

“Here are some we have already cracked, that we already know. Grapes, hearts, and a bottle mean cough syrup. We have some very talented agents, and they work tirelessly, to figure this out and they have. And we are going to continue to figure this out every time they come up with something new and creative, we will be right there to figure it out.” said Comeaux. “We are working on a cyber team right now in this office, to attack this problem and all they do is look at social media, and they look at ways drug cartels are communicating through smart devices. And when you have that device, drug dealers have a way of communicating with you. From various applications, that has disappearing messages.”

Comeaux wants parents to talk with their children and educate them.

And it’s through education, Scroggins said she is finding peace and closure.

“I am working on developing a program where I can go out into middle schools and high schools and share the story and make awareness,” she said.

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