Minnesota medical researchers develop vaccines to treat opioid abuse

A team of scientists from the University of Minnesota Medical School and Minneapolis Medical Research Foundation at Hennepin Healthcare are developing vaccines against heroin and prescription opioids.

Heroin and prescription opioid abuse and fatal overdoses are a public health emergency in the United States.

According to researchers, the vaccines use the immune system to produce molecules (antibodies) that target, bind and prevent opioids from reaching the brain (the site of drug action).

The research team’s pre-clinical studies were published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, Scientific Reports and PLOS ONE. The team found that heroin and oxycodone vaccines were "highly immunogenic" in rodents and that the vaccines were "highly effective and selective at reducing opioid distribution to the brain." 

They also found that the oxycodone vaccine may be more effective in humans if it is administered orally.

According to researchers, pre-clinical studies showed that both heroin and oxycodone vaccines were effective in blocking heroin and oxycodone distribution to the brain when subjects were challenged with clinically-relevant opioid doses. The vaccination also "prevents addiction-relevant behaviors, including opioid self-administration that models human abuse patterns."

These vaccines appear to be safe and may help in preventing opioid-induced respiratory depression, a hallmark of an opioid fatal overdose.

Importantly, vaccination does not prevent use of currently approved addiction treatment medications such as methadone, naltrexone, buprenorphine and naloxone (Narcan).

The research team is also working on biologics against other opioid targets, such as fentanyl, and developing more effective next-generation vaccine formulations.