The Vaccine for Heroin Addiction That You Didn’t Know Existed

A potential vaccine for heroin addiction that demonstrated very positive results in early animal trials isn’t currently being clinically studied—and most people aren’t even aware it exists—due to the difficulties in obtaining funding for drug vaccine research.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the number of deaths due to heroin overdose doubled across 28 states from 2010 to 2012, and the issues with heroin appear to be closely tied to the prescription drug abuse epidemic continuing across the U.S. Despite these growing issues, most people are still unaware of the promising heroin vaccine developed by researchers, such as Kim Janda of the Scripps Research Institute, because it isn’t being pursued.

The Vaccine: Stopping Heroin From Reaching the Brain

The vaccine developed by the Scripps team is unlike many of the medications currently used for heroin addiction. These either revolve around providing a longer-lasting dose of an opioid (which is ordinarily safer, but still leads to withdrawal when individuals try to come off the medicine, as seen with methadone) or by blocking the receptors in the brain that respond to opioid drugs (which also induces withdrawal). The vaccine from Janda’s team works like a sponge in the bloodstream, chemically binding to the heroin and blocking it from crossing over into the brain.

The positive finding for the vaccine came in the form of a preclinical trial from 2013, which found that heroin-addicted rats given the vaccine didn’t relapse and that the drug’s “rewarding” effects were effectively blocked. It could be the most promising vaccine for heroin abuse ever created. Dr. George Koob, who also worked on the study, commented that, “It’s really dramatic. You can inject a rat with 10 times the dose of heroin that a normal rat [could handle] and they just look at you like nothing happened. It’s extraordinary.”

Problems With Funding

With the rising problem of opioid addiction in the U.S., you may expect that such a finding would generate a lot of attention. Of course, results in rodents don’t necessarily translate to people, so real-world human trials are needed before the vaccine could be considered for widespread use. Janda said he receives at least one email per week from somebody requesting to be part of such a trial. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has set aside $27.1 million for research into addiction vaccines, but this sadly isn’t enough to perform the required human trials.

The problem is that such vaccines don’t get much support from pharmaceutical companies. According to Janda, “No pharmaceutical company is going to fund trials for heroin, no way. For meth? No way. Forget about it.”

Do Animal Results on Drug Vaccines Translate to Humans?

Although the rat results look positive for the heroin vaccine, there are a couple of fairly well-publicized recent findings that cast doubt on whether the vaccine would work in human trials. In 2014, a cocaine vaccine that looked promising based on animal results was tested in humans and showed no significant benefit for helping users quit, and a nicotine vaccine that previously looked promising ran into similar issues in 2011. However positive the animal results seem to be, there is always a very real possibility that the same won’t be true when a drug is tested in humans.

Traditional Addiction Treatments vs. Vaccines

Finally, there is an unavoidable issue with any addiction vaccine. Although there are physical components to addiction (the “rewarding” effect of the drug in the brain leading to addiction), there are unavoidable psychological components. In short, a vaccine could prevent heroin addiction, but it can’t have an effect on the underlying reasons the individual decided to take heroin in the first place. Vaccines can stop one drug from having its desired effect, but since psychological factors (for example, poor coping mechanisms for stress or depression) ordinarily underpin the decision to try drugs (as well as continue using them), these same factors could lead the individual to another substance.

There is a temptation to view the idea of drug vaccines with skepticism for this reason, but in reality there is no need to make it a decision between traditional addiction treatment and vaccines. If a vaccine like this one for heroin addiction was genuinely effective in humans, it could be combined with the essential psychological support and therapy required to understand and overcome addiction itself in order to provide multi-faceted treatment. These vaccines could become a vital tool in helping to reduce addiction.


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