A new vaccine is being developed by a group of American scientists, which can make the human brain immune to the effects of heroin and a synthetic opioid called fentanyl. Two types of the vaccine have been tested in mice and monkeys so far, with promising results.
With the new vaccine, the addict will feel no effects at all from taking the drugs for several weeks, which could be crucial in breaking a drug habit.
According to statistics, an opioid crisis is on the rise in the US as the number of drug users tripled between 2003 and 2014 and fatal overdoses tripled in the past 15 years. In 2015, drug overdoses resulted in over 50,000 deaths in the US.
There is also a rising threat of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which are must cheaper and faster to manufacture. Fentanyl is an extremely potent pain-relieving drug, 50 times more powerful than morphine. The drug is used for anaesthesia and for relieving pain from major surgeries or cancer.
Fentanyl is better known in the US than in Europe but it is starting to make headlines as there are major concerns that it will spread across the Atlantic. Fentanyl has caused the deaths of at least 60 people in the UK over the last eight months, but this number pales in comparison to the amount of deaths caused by the drug in the US.
The most extreme example of how potent fentanyl can be is one of its variants carfentanil. It is 5,000 times stronger than heroin and is used to tranquilise elephants. It can be lethal to humans in amounts even smaller than a few grains of salt and there have been cases of human consumption, where it was used to spike heroin or cocaine.
Drug addiction is often treated with the use of a drug substitution with less potent opioids such as methadone. It doesn’t have the euphoric effect of heroin and the risk of overdose is much less, but the treatment is expensive and requires daily intake. Moreover, methadone and other opiate substitutes are still addictive, while vaccines are inexpensive and potentially much more effective.