As the incidence of opioid-related fatal overdoses continues to rise in the United States, new therapeutic strategies for opioid use disorders (OUD) are needed. One proposed solution is active immunization with anti-opioid conjugate vaccines, which selectively reduce the effects of their target opioid through production of drug-specific antibodies. As opposed to pharmacotherapies (e.g., methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone) targeting opioid receptors in the brain, opioid-specific antibodies operate through a pharmacokinetic mechanism by sequestering the target opioid in serum and reducing its distribution to the brain. Anti-opioid vaccines could provide safe and cost-effective interventions that offer several advantages over current small molecule medications: long-lasting protection that reduces the burden of compliance; no abuse liability or risk of diversion; and due to their selectivity, vaccines do not interfere with endogenous opioids, or with nontarget opioids prescribed for pain management or for treatment of OUD. To improve clinical outcome, vaccines could be used in combination with other medications for OUD.
Extensive preclinical studies have identified a series of lead vaccines selectively targeting heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, or fentanyl (e.g., [1,2,3]). Anti-opioid vaccines effectively reduce distribution of the target opioid to the brain, and reduce opioid-induced behavior, including drug self-administration, in mice, rats, or nonhuman primates. Notably, vaccine efficacy in reducing opioid distribution to the brain depends on the target opioid, its dose, and route of exposure , highlighting the need to consider variables such as patterns of drug use in study design of clinical trials. Supporting a role for vaccines in overdose prevention, vaccination reduces opioid-induced respiratory depression and bradycardia, two significant factors in overdose-related fatalities . Additionally, anti-opioid vaccines do not interfere with naloxone reversal of opioid toxicity  and improve survival following a lethal heroin dose .
Clinical evaluation of first-generation nicotine and cocaine vaccines has shown that only a subset of immunized subjects produced levels of drug-specific antibodies sufficient for efficacy. Therefore, it is critical to optimize vaccine formulations to maximize efficacy, to understand the immunological mechanisms underlying effective immune responses, and to identify biomarkers predictive of individual variability. Multiple studies have focused on vaccine design, including optimization of hapten and linker chemistry, choice of carrier protein and adjuvant, and development of novel carriers and delivery platforms. Effective formulations of vaccines against heroin have included the TLR9 agonist CpG  and liposomes containing the TLR4 agonist monophosphoryl lipid A . The efficacy of an oxycodone vaccine was enhanced by shifting IgG subclass distribution through inhibition of interleukin-4 signaling, both indicating a pharmacological target for vaccine development, and granting insight into mechanisms underlying vaccine efficacy . Additionally, the pre-immunization frequency of hapten-specific B cell population subsets correlated with vaccine efficacy, suggesting that subjects likely to generate clinically effective opioid-specific antibody responses could be identified prior to vaccination . Accelerating the translation of vaccines for OUD will benefit from rational design of more effective vaccine components, development of clinically viable formulations, and biomarkers supporting patient stratification.
Mounting preclinical data provide proof of selectivity and efficacy for anti-opioid vaccines, demonstrating their potential to treat OUD and reduce incidence of opioid overdoses. Testing these vaccines in clinical trials is warranted.
Bremer PT, Kimishima A, Schlosburg JE, Zhou B, Collins KC, Janda KD. Combatting synthetic designer opioids: a conjugate vaccine ablates lethal doses of fentanyl class drugs. Angew Chem Int Ed Engl. 2016;55:3772–5.
Raleigh MD, Laudenbach M, Baruffaldi F, Peterson SJ, Roslawski MJ, Birnbaum AK, et al. Opioid dose- and route-dependent efficacy of oxycodone and heroin vaccines in rats. J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 2018;365:346–53.
Sulima A, Jalah R, Antoline JFG, Torres OB, Imler GH, Deschamps JR, et al. A stable heroin analogue that can serve as a vaccine hapten to induce antibodies that block the effects of heroin and its metabolites in rodents and that cross-react immunologically with related drugs of abuse. J Med Chem. 2018;61:329–43.
Raleigh MD, Peterson SJ, Laudenbach M, Baruffaldi F, Carroll FI, Comer SD, et al. Safety and efficacy of an oxycodone vaccine: addressing some of the unique considerations posed by opioid abuse. PLoS One. 2017;12:e0184876.
Hwang CS, Bremer PT, Wenthur CJ, Ho SO, Chiang S, Ellis B, et al. Enhancing efficacy and stability of an antiheroin vaccine: examination of antinociception, opioid binding profile, and lethality. Mol Pharm. 2018;15:1062–72.
Laudenbach M, Baruffaldi F, Robinson C, Carter P, Seelig D, Baehr C, et al. Blocking interleukin-4 enhances efficacy of vaccines for treatment of opioid abuse and prevention of opioid overdose. Sci Rep. 2018;8:5508.
Laudenbach M, Baruffaldi F, Vervacke JS, Distefano MD, Titcombe PJ, Mueller DL, et al. The frequency of naive and early-activated hapten-specific B cell subsets dictates the efficacy of a therapeutic vaccine against prescription opioid abuse. J Immunol. 2015;194:5926–36.
This work is supported by a Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute award (M.P.), and by the NIH under grants U01 DA038876 (M.P.), R01 DA041730 (M.P.), and T32DA007097 (C.B.).
M.P. is the inventor of “Cytokine Signaling Immunomodulators and Methods,” International Application No. PCT/US2017/031907 filed on May 10, 2017. C.B. declares no competing interests.
Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Baehr, C., Pravetoni, M. Vaccines to treat opioid use disorders and to reduce opioid overdoses. Neuropsychopharmacol 44, 217–218 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-018-0197-3
This article is cited by
Unique Pharmacology, Brain Dysfunction, and Therapeutic Advancements for Fentanyl Misuse and Abuse
Neuroscience Bulletin (2022)
Pharmacy stakeholder reports on ethical and logistical considerations in anti-opioid vaccine development
BMC Medical Ethics (2021)
Recent Advances in the Treatment of Opioid Use Disorder
Current Pain and Headache Reports (2021)
Preclinical Evaluation of Vaccines to Treat Opioid Use Disorders: How Close are We to a Clinically Viable Therapeutic?
CNS Drugs (2020)
Conjugate vaccine produces long-lasting attenuation of fentanyl vs. food choice and blocks expression of opioid withdrawal-induced increases in fentanyl choice in rats