Promising research could lead to opioid vaccine


The opioid epidemic is a public health crisis across the country. 

Connecticut, too, is feeling the pain.    

Pam Mautte is with BHcare, a nonprofit organization caring for people with substance use issues. 

She says, “We are losing about one airplane full of people every day to an accidental drug overdose and in the state of Connecticut we are losing almost three people a day due to overdose deaths.”

Now comes word of a potential vaccine against the euphoric impact of opioids, lowering the risk or eliminating addiction to painkillers.    

“The vaccine prevents a lot of the drug from reaching the brain so the rewarding effect of the drug is no longer there,” says Dr. Candy Hwang, now at Southern Connecticut State University, who led the effort on opioid research at Scripps Research Institute, based on previous studies. 

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She adds, “Can we take our heroin vaccine that we have studied for many years, combine it with a fentanyl vaccine and protect against both drugs? And we found that we can.”             

So far, it’s effective in animal models.

Dr. Hwang says, “So in a vaccinated mouse, the drugs did not pass through blood brain barrier because it was trapped by antibodies, so, therefore, the mouse did not get high.” 

Human clinical trials are still years away. It comes with challenges.

“How do we stimulate a big immune response,” says Dr. Hwang, “To generate antibodies but not make you sick?” 

If successful, Mautte says, “It could be a game changer in how we’re dealing with the opioid epidemic and treating addiction.” 

“It would prevent overdose before people could even reach Narcan,” says Dr. Hwang.   

Narcan is the drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.  

Dr. Hwang stresses that one of the issues with opioid addiction is when people try to quit, it’s challenging.

The hope is this potential vaccine will protect people against an overdose and they will less likely relapse.     

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