MISSOULA — While COVID-19 vaccines are getting most of the headlines right now, researchers here at the University of Montana are working on another vaccine that could affect millions of people.
Over 150-Montanas died from opioid overdose in the year between May 2019 and May 2020, and researchers at the University of Montana worry the COVID-19 pandemic is only adding pressure to the national crisis that's killed 450,000 people in the U.S. in the past 20 years.
"That's still there, underlying all this COVID stuff is probably not only there, it's probably worse. All of these stay-at-home people losing their jobs, other family situations drives people towards, drug and alcohol abuse or abuse of prescription pain medicine," says Dr. Jay Evans, Director for the U.M. Center for Transitional Medicine. "So I actually think when the COVID thing is over, which hopefully is very soon, the underlying opioid condition we'll find has actually gotten worse in that time."
But UM researchers are pursuing a tool to help. An actual opioid vaccine.
"We take the opioid, which we call it a hapten because we're trying to generate an immune response against it, we link it to a carrier protein which allows the immune response immune system to recognize it," explains Dr. Evans. "Once it recognizes it, it generates antibodies against that drug. Those antibodies don't cross the blood-brain barrier. So people who are vaccinated have circulating antibodies. When they go to use the opioid drug, it can't cross the blood-brain barrier and therefore they have no effect of the opioid drug."
The idea is to not have a vaccine for the general public, but for recovering addicts, and especially a safety net for first responders coming in contact with fentanyl and other compounds that can kill even with limited exposure.
"This is very specific a vaccine. Either for first responders who have a have a chance of being accidentally exposed to these highly, you know, active fentanyl, carfentanyl, sufentanil, these things that, you know, where minute doses are lethal. Or for people who are recovering addicts that have a really high chance to relapse and the time when they're recovering, give them an option to help them quit faster and easier," Dr. Evans told MTN News during a visit to the U.M. lab. "It switches off that switch, which means that the drug can't get to the brain and have it's, you know, it's narcotic effect as well as it can't lead to lethal overdose."
And just as importantly, it doesn't preclude the use of opioids in appropriate prescriptive form. "An antibody against fentanyl will not take away your ability to have other opioid-based pain relief if you needed to control pain," Dr. Evans said.
Evans and his colleagues have experience with a similar approach to nicotine but believe an antibody against opioids will be much more effective. "You need very little quantity to have this effect in the brain so you don't need as much antibody, which means this vaccine strategy that we're developing should be much more effective."
Researchers working on this opioid vaccine — many of them University of Montana graduates — say it's exciting to be working on something that could benefit so many people."
"It's just really exciting to also know the science behind it too on finding a novel way to really attack a problem that's really been an epidemic prior to COVID, and it's exciting to be able to help in that way," UM Ph.D. graduate Asia Riel says during a break from her research work.
The five-year, $33-million effort should lead to a clinical trial sometime in the next year. But Dr. Evans says it will take teamwork.
"It takes years and years of research from students and postdocs and scholars here at the University of Montana and other places to figure out how to do this and then implement it.
It takes corporate partners. This program is partnered with Inimmunen, which is a biotech company right here in Missoula the GMP manufacturing and those aspects of it that don't fit well in a university environment, more of an industry side of things and controlling how well the product is manufactured and make sure it's safe for use in people."
That award from the National Institutes of Health to work on the opioid vaccine was the largest research award ever granted to the University of Montana.