A group of Virginia Tech researchers are working towards a new way to combat opioid use disorder: with a vaccine.
Medication assisted treatment (MAT), which includes a combination of medications and behavioral counseling, may be used to treat an individual already suffering from opioid use disorder, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The researchers, led by Virginia Tech Professor Chenming “Mark” Zhang, Ph.D, hope their vaccine can prevent opioids from entering the brain so people can avoid developing a use disorder altogether.
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In a Virginia Tech feature on his research, Zhang said:
“Opioids get into the blood and then the brain. At present, there is no cure or way to solve the dependence they create. Our hope is that the vaccine, consisting of one shot and two boosters, will help recipients develop antibodies against opioids. It will alleviate the symptom of the high generated by the brain.”
Some opioid drugs, such as oxycodone, fentanyl, and oxymorphone, can provide relief for chronic pain, and health care providers can legally prescribe them. However, opioids will activate a dopamine surge in the body that, when untreated, can lead to dependency and misuse.
The vaccine uses an inorganic nanoparticle that will introduce opioid molecules to the body in a form that mimics a virus. This will allow the immune system to develop a rapid response that can prevent future opioid molecules from entering the body. Zhang said:
“Once you start developing vaccines against psychoactive compounds, you can aim your technology where society needs it. We have a lot of work ahead of us, and this will take several years, but it is extremely gratifying to work on something so important.”
The researchers were awarded a two-year, $3.1 million grant from NIDA for the project in 2019. If the study meets the “proposed milestones” later this year, the grant will expand to a five-year award, for a total of $8.7 million in funding.
The research comes at a crucial time, as the pandemic continues to take a toll on Virginia’s mental health. According to a 2021 analysis from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), almost 2,300 people are estimated to have died from opioid overdose in 2020 alone — the highest number of deaths recorded in the study and a 40% increase from 2019. Opioid overdose death has been the leading cause of unnatural death in the Commonwealth since 2013, according to VDH.
Virginia hospitals have been struggling to handle admissions for behavioral health treatment. With the vaccine providing a preventive treatment, along with developing community-based substance use services, Virginia could potentially lower hospital admission rates.
Addressing the opioid epidemic has been a hot topic for Virginia health. At the 2021 Virginia State of Reform Conference, a cross-sector panel including Del. Rod Willett and Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services Commissioner Alison Land outlined solutions to address substance use and behavioral health across the state.
These included more funding for behavioral health services at state community service boards, implementing health care quality assessments, and increasing mental health resources at schools.