Researchers at VCU Test Vaccine for Deadly Opioid Fentanyl

Jun 26, 2019


More than half of the overdose deaths in 2017 were caused by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.
Credit Rick Bowmer / AP


Fentanyl is a deadly part of the opioid crisis.  The synthetic drug can be up to 100-times more potent than morphine. Now researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond have not only tested a promising vaccine, but they’ve also developed a method to test other new treatments.



When Matthew Banks was in graduate school he loved to run. Not just in the moment, but the way it made him feel after. The runner’s high.

“And that was fascinating to me,” Banks says. “That something like exercise could produce that high. And so in pharmacy school we learned that drugs can work in the brain to produce a similar high.”

A high so strong it can hijack our brains. Combined with his pharmacy background he launched on a research path: how can scientists, in a lab, evaluate new treatments for substance use disorder?

“Substance use is a really complex mental health disorder. And so we were interested in pulling down specific aspects of that into our laboratory,” says Banks.

The process they developed wound up being pretty straightforward. They start by giving rats the drug. The rats become hooked and given the option between the drug and food, they consistently choose the drug.

That’s the baseline. Then the scientists introduce the treatment, which in this case was a new vaccine for fentanyl.

“So what we saw was a rat that was vulnerable to taking fentanyl under normal conditions,” Banks explains. “When we administer the fentanyl vaccine the rats almost completely stop taking fentanyl and took almost exclusively food.”

In other words, the vaccine worked. It blunted the effects of the high, opening up space in the brain for other thoughts. For the rats that meant choosing the food. But in humans that could be choosing work, or time with family.

“You have now given… food, or job, or family... opportunities to compete with the drug of abuse. And then once they start competing effectively than you’re on that positive path,” says Banks.

While the way the drug works is different, the result is not all that different from other medically assisted treatments on the market.

But according to the National Safety Council more people in the U.S. die from drug overdoses than car accidents. And Gerry Moeller, a physician and researcher at VCU, says any additional treatment is a good thing.

“Because we need every option we can possibly get to treat this epidemic because it’s killing so many Americans,” says Moeller.

Dr. Gerry Moeller
Credit Virginia Commonwealth University


If the vaccine is eventually approved for human use, Moeller sees it as potentially a good treatment choice for patients who are already clean. He could vaccinate them against the opioid and then if they relapse they wouldn’t get high.

Moeller says it could keep a slip-up from becoming a full on resurgence. Plus, it could save lives. People who relapse are at higher risk of overdosing.

“People who are abstinent they lose their tolerance to opioids. And so if they go back out and use the same amount of drugs that they were using before, they die,” says Moeller.

The VCU team has published their results in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology. A company in California is doing clinical trials for the vaccine.

In the meantime, Matthew Banks’s team, including his lab of rats, is ready to evaluate the next new potential treatment for opioid abuse.


This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.