Vaccine for Addiction Would First Target Opioid Addicts
Hopes are running high for an addiction vaccine in the wake of recent comments by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who called the prospects for such a shot “exciting.”
An inoculation would make it easier for people to stop using opioids. That is, after receiving the vaccine, individuals would no longer get a rush or feeling of euphoria from the drugs.
“One of the exciting things that they’re actually working on is a vaccine for addiction, which is incredibly exciting,” Price said at a news conference on the opioid epidemic. And according to the National Institutes of Health, vaccines will one day “be available to sustain abstinence, even prevent addiction.”
That’s a tall order. Medical experts say such vaccines are a ways off, pointing out that none has begun human trials. Even then, the vaccine would have to go through phase one, two and three trials before being submitted to the FDA for approval. That process takes years. And the first such inoculations to reach the market would treat people in recovery as opposed to being of the preventive order given in childhood for such diseases as the measles and mumps.
“I can’t imagine the vaccine would be on the market before the Trump administration is over,” Dr. Thomas R. Kosten, a professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN. For his part, Kosten is working on a shot that targets fentanyl, an opioid considered to be up to 100 times stronger than morphine.
But the vaccine approach is indeed showing promise at a time when the country is desperately in need of a fix in the battle against heroin and other opioid drugs. The most recent federal data shows that in 2015, 33,000 deaths were blamed on opioid overdoses. The epidemic affects all demographics, teens and seniors, rich and poor. Going forward, the situation looks even more dire. “The numbers in 2016 are no better, and the numbers in 2017 are even worse than 2016,” Price said.
How an Opioid Addiction Vaccine Would Work
Like all vaccines, an opioid vaccine would prime the immune system to create antibodies to fight the invading substance. It’s important to note that each inoculation developed would target only one type of opioid. In other words, a shot that works for heroin would not be effective against prescription painkillers.
The vaccine in the most advanced stages of development targets heroin. Created by scientists at The Scripps Research Institute, the vaccine has proven effective in neutralizing heroin in monkeys. Results thus far have shown it works for up to eight months. “We believe this vaccine candidate will prove safe for human trials, said professor Kim Janda, who is leading the research, in a news release. The next step will be human clinical trials.
Several other researchers are also developing opioid vaccines. The Minnesota Medical Research Foundation is working on separate drugs to combat heroin and prescription painkiller addiction, but those vaccines are still being tested in rodents. Scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research are also working on a heroin vaccine but it too has yet to graduate from rodent testing to primates.
‘Little Pac-Men Floating Around’
Researchers have been working for decades on vaccines to block the addictive effects of drugs. A vaccine for cocaine has thus far proven elusive because the body has failed to produce enough antibodies to fight the drug. The same holds true for efforts to develop a nicotine vaccine. In describing the process, Ron Crystal, a researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College, told NBC, “If you snort some cocaine, it takes about six to eight seconds to travel to the receptors in your brain, where it will induce an effect of getting high. The antibodies have to be sufficient — like little Pac-Men floating around in your blood — to prevent the drug from reaching the brain.”
The use of vaccines provides some big advantages over the current medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Buprenorphine and methadone often must be taken on a daily basis and require a visit to a specialized clinic, while naltrexone must be injected each month. A vaccine, on the other hand, would have long-lasting effects, requiring only a few stops at the doctor each year.
Ironically, the availability of these medications had, until recently, stalled work on opioid vaccines, said Ivan Montoya, a director at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “But right now the opioid crisis issue is going beyond the interventions we have.”
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