Nov. 15 (UPI) -- A vaccine tested in a lab-scale setting can block the dangerous opioid, fentanyl, from entering the brain and leading to abuse, researchers at the University of Houston said this week.
A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Pharmaceutics details how the experimental vaccine was able to generate antibodies that would bind to fentanyl, sending it on to the kidneys that would process it into waste.
This, in turn, would block it from entering the brain and eliminate the high associated with fentanyl.
"We believe these findings could have a significant impact on a very serious problem plaguing society for years -- opioid misuse," said Colin Haile, a research associate at the University of Houston and the study's lead author.
Fentanyl is a dangerous opioid that many people might not realize they're taking because it's often added to so-called street drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine.
The U.S. Justice Department in September announced that it seized 10 million fentanyl-laced pills and 82 pounds of fentanyl powder over the period of a five-month, national investigation.
"Across the country, fentanyl is devastating families and communities, and we know that violent, criminal drug cartels bear responsibility for this crisis," Attorney General Merrick Garland said.
Depending on a person's size, Houston researcher said only 2 milligrams of fentanyl -- about the size of two grains of rice -- can prove fatal in humans. The vaccine has so far been tested only in rats, but Haile's team so far has seen few adverse side effects and it did not interfere with other opioids, such as morphine.
"That means a vaccinated person would still be able to be treated for pain relief with other opioids," he said.
Researchers add that opioid abuse is treatable, but nearly 80% of people who try to quit usually suffer a relapse. Opioids in general, meanwhile, are pervasive.
A federal judge in Ohio in August ordered Walmart, Walgreens and CVS to pay $650 million to two counties near Cleveland over their roles in distributing opioid painkillers that are ripe for abuse.
Clinical trials for the vaccine in humans are expected to get underway soon, Houston researchers said.