Chapel Hill company working to develop vaccine to prevent fentanyl overdoses

After more than 4,000 people in North Carolina died last year from fentanyl, a Chapel Hill company has a plan to cut down on deadly overdoses.

A Chapel Hill company is developing an injectable drug to cut down on deadly overdoses after more than 4,000 people in North Carolina died last year from fentanyl.

Fentanyl is the number one killer of Americans ages 18 to 45, with opioids producing the worst drug crisis in the history of the United States.

Chapel Hill-based Cessation Therapeutics says its monoclonal antibody therapy, called CSX-1004, can block the dangerous effects of fentanyl.

“Fentanyl can get to the brain really quickly,” said Andy Barrett, chief scientific officer for Cessation Therapeutics. “And the brain is where it produces its pleasurable effects and its dangerous respiratory depression.”

Without any intervention, fentanyl can enter the bloodstream and travel easily to the brain – but the monoclonal antibody can bind to fentanyl in the blood and prevent it from crossing that blood brain barrier.

“It would block all of the effects of fentanyl for at least a month,” Barrett said.

While the focus of CSX-1004 is to prevent fatal overdoses, Barret said it could also wean people off the drug.

“We do expect that people will stop taking fentanyl over time as they start realizing that it’s not going to produce any euphoric effect,” Barrett said.

The Chapel Hill research is backed by millions of dollars in federal grants. The company is also looking at an injectable form.

“I think it’s just an amazing use of science,” said Dr. Eric Morse, who has treated opioid addiction for 22 years.

Morse said the antibody treatment could work well in conjunction with other treatments, but the underlying cause of addiction still has to be addressed.

“The vaccine’s not going to help with some of the psychological damage that occurs through developing a use disorder,” Morse said.

Clinical trials in humans started in August and will run into next spring. If clinical trials go as expected and the FDA approves CSX-1004, it could be available in 2026.

More than 4,000 people in North Carolina died from overdose in 2021, a 22% increase over previous year, the state reports. The increase is driven by fentanyl, and more than 775 of overdose deaths in N.C. in 2021 likely involved fentanyl, according to the state.

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