BLACKSBURG, Va. (WFXR) – Prescription or illicit opioid overdose deaths has been identified as a public health crisis not just in Virginia, but throughout the United States. When Dr. Mike Zhang heard the story about a mother who lost her son to an opioid overdose just one month after he was introduced to the drug at a party, he was inspired to do more.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.
Dr. Zhang and a team of researchers at Virginia Tech are combining their skills to work on a vaccine to counteract opioid addiction and potentially save millions of lives.
“A lot of people go to the rehab center and try to stop the addiction, so hopefully our vaccine can help those people. They can regain their soberness much faster and can prevent them from relapsing so that they can get away from the opioid completely,” says Dr. Zhang, the lead researcher and professor of Biological Systems and Engineering at Virginia Tech.
When opioids enter the human body, they travel through the blood and enters the brain. Once there, the addictive chemical interacts with the opioid receptor and generates the reward system of being high.
The vaccine, consisting of one shot and two boosters, will be designed to help the immune system produce antibodies towards the opioid molecules, which will alleviate the symptom of the high generated by the brain and eventually allow the user to use the drug less frequently until they can remain abstinent.
Researchers are also hoping this vaccine can save lives during an overdose, with the idea that the body will respond to the injection by quickly producing antibodies to prevent the chemical from accessing the brain.
On July 15, 2019, Dr. Zhang and his team were awarded a two-year $3,091,192 grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. If the proposed milestones of the project within the first two years are met, the grant will be expanded to a five-year award totaling $8,783,147.
Since starting the project, Dr. Zhang has continued to be inspired by stories involving opioids. A few weeks ago, he received an email from a mom in South Carolina and shared her story about her son’s own addiction.
“She’s a single mom. She spent her entire life savings just trying to get her son to become sober and is still struggling with that. It’s a very potent addiction. It’s very difficult to kick out the habit,” says Dr. Zhang.
Previously, he has also developed a vaccine to combat nicotine addiction. Similiar to the opioid vaccine, antibodies are designed to generate and interact with nicotine in the bloodstream to prevent their entrance into the brain, stopping more than 60% of the molecules. A patent for that vaccine is still pending.
Dr. Zhang doesn’t know when he expects the project to be complete, but he hopes that after five years of developing and testing the vaccines on mice and rats, they can move forward into clinical trials.
If the vaccine proves to be successful, he’s also hoping to develop vaccinations for other addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin. But for now, his focus is on helping to fight against the opioid crisis.
“I hope some parents won’t lose their son or daughter, or the son and daughter won’t lose their family. As a parent, I know how devastating that will be. It doesn’t matter which way you look at it. Hopefully, we can. Every single life we can save – that will be very satisfactory to a scientist like me,” says Dr. Zhang.