Scientists Receive NIH Grant to Develop Adjuvant Vaccine for Opioid Use Disorders


Opioid addicts wage a daily war inside over whether or not to use a drug whose side effect can be death. However, if these same addicts had the choice of getting the opioid vaccine once or twice a year, their internal struggle might be over.

With a $ 25 million grant from the National Institutes of Health Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative (HEAL), vaccine researchers at the Precision Vaccines Program at Boston Children’s Hospital have partnered with Therese Kosten, professor of psychology at the ‘University of Houston, and colleagues. Greg Cuny, associate professor of medicinal chemistry at UH College of Pharmacy, and Dr. Colin Haile, MD, assistant research professor of psychology, to develop an adjuvant vaccine against opioid use disorders.

An adjuvant molecule stimulates the immune system’s response to vaccines, which is essential for the effectiveness of drug abuse vaccines.

The vaccine targets fentanyl, a very potent synthetic opioid.

It could be a game-changer when it comes to addiction. “

Therese Kosten, DDirector, Developmental, Cognitive and Behavioral Neurosciences Program, University of Houston

Kosten received $ 1.8 million from the grant to make the combination of the adjuvant with the vaccine as potent as possible.

An opioid vaccine would protect the brain and nervous system by stimulating the body to create strong antibodies that target and bind to opioid molecules, preventing them from crossing the blood-brain barrier to reach the brain. By blocking opioids from the brain, the vaccine is believed to reduce the respiratory depression caused by the opioids when they reach the brain.

Fentanyl is a particularly difficult problem because it is often added to illicit drugs like cocaine, methamphetamines, and even counterfeit benzodiazepines like Xanax, which increases the amount of fentanyl overdoses.

“Fentanyl is different from heroin or other opioids in the way 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 them drugs that can reverse a heroin overdose, like Narcan, almost ineffective against it, ”Kosten said.

Kosten’s vaccine development follows her work with her spouse, Dr. Thomas Kosten, MD, who holds a joint appointment at UH and Baylor College of Medicine, previously developed and tested against cocaine.

“We will also assess multi-dose strategies, followed by single-dose vaccination, heterologous vaccination strategies and the impact of decreased immunity,” said Kosten. The Kosten team will provide expert input to the regulatory strategy for meetings with the Food and Drug Administration based on their many years of experience in drug vaccine development.

The number of opioid-related deaths has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the American Medical Association, more than 40 states are reporting an increase in opioid deaths. In June, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that 13% of adults surveyed in the United States said they had started or increased use of opioids to cope with stress or emotions related to the pandemic.

Leading the vaccine project in Boston are the principal investigators, Dr. Ofer Levy, MD, and David Dowling, of the Boston Children’s Precision Vaccines Program, as well as additional support from Dr. Sharon Levy, MD, director of the Boston Children’s Adolescent Substance Use program. and Addiction and Elissa. Weitzman of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine.

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