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Friday, September 22, 2023

Academics & Research

UH professor working on anti-opioid vaccine

A $25 million grant has been awarded to a UH psychology professor to create an adjuvant opioid use disorder vaccine. 

The National Institutes of Health’s HEAL initiative lets the professor, Therese Kosten, the opportunity to create an adjuvant opioid use disorder vaccine.

The development of the vaccine is a joint effort between Kosten, associate professor in UH College of Pharmacy, Greg Cuny and associate professor of psychology, Colin Haile. The three also partnered with vaccine scientists at the Precision Vaccines Program at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“The focus of this grant is to test various adjuvants, agents that boost the immune response, along with the anti-fentanyl vaccine that we developed, to find the vaccine/adjuvant compound that most effectively blocks the effects of fentanyl and lead to high and long-lasting antibody levels,” Kosten said.

“We then hope to move to human trials and work on getting FDA approval,” Kosten added.

According to a press release by the university, the vaccine is meant to target a synthetic opioid called fentanyl.

“Fentanyl is different from heroin or other opioids in the way that it stimulates the nervous system. It activates the same receptors in the brain as heroin or morphine but does so by a different mechanism, which makes drugs that can reverse a heroin overdose, like Narcan, almost ineffective against it,” Kosten said. 

The vaccine would protect the brain and nervous system by creating antibodies that target and bind opioid molecules by stimulating the body. It would also prevent them from crossing the blood barrier to reach the brain.  

Fentanyl poses a problem because it is added to street drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines and counterfeit benzodiazepines like Xanax.

“We spent many years developing and testing anti-addiction vaccines for cocaine, morphine, and methamphetamine and more recently, we began work on a fentanyl vaccine,” Kosten said.

 “Our research spans bench-to-bedside; we design the vaccine, conduct preclinical tests, and in some cases as with the anti-cocaine vaccine, have moved into human clinical trials,” Kosten continued. 

Prior research findings found that Kosten and her team needed to focus on enhancing the immune system’s response to induce high therapeutic antibody levels in order to block the drug.

Furthermore, Kosten said that if successful, an anti-fentanyl vaccine could be used to prevent overdose and death from fentanyl use as well as could be a therapeutic agent to those who suffer from fentanyl use. 

“This is a therapeutic vaccine for anyone who has fentanyl use disorder and is seeking treatment to stop using the drug,” Kosten said. “We hope the vaccine could be used in emergency situations of fentanyl overdose.” 

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