The widespread abuse of opioids — a class of drugs that includes heroin as well as prescription pain relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others — has become a nationwide crisis in the United States.
Simply put – the drug is addictive.
So addictive in fact, it is estimated that of the 20.5 million Americans that had substance abuse disorders in 2015, over 2 million had disorders involving prescription pain relievers, and 591,000 had substance abuse disorders involving heroin.
What’s more, opioids accounted for nearly half of all drug-related deaths in 2015 — cementing drug overdose as the leading cause of accidental death in the nation.
Despite attempts to curb the prevalence of opioid abuse through education, the epidemic is growing at frightening speeds. In fact, it is projected that if the use of opioids continues to accelerate at the current rate, the drug could kill nearly half a million people across America over the next decade.
While there are various forms of treatment for opioid dependency, including stepping down dosage via the controlled use of methadone under medical supervision, there has never been an antidote proven to cure the addiction. That is, until now.
According to researchers at Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), they’ve developed a vaccine that successfully blocks the “high” of heroin for up to 8 months after being administered.
It works by teaching the immune system to produce antibodies against heroin, and the psychoactive products within it that cause the high users experience. The vaccine does this by exposing the immune system to the part of the heroin molecule’s structure.
Then when heroin is next introduced into the system, the newly created antibodies will target it, neutralizing the heroin molecules. Users (in this trial, rhesus monkeys) don’t feel the euphoria from heroin because the heroin molecules are blocked before they can reach the brain.
“This validates our previous rodent data and positions our vaccine in a favorable light for anticipated clinical evaluation,” study leader Kim Janda said in a statement. “We believe this vaccine candidate will prove safe for human trials.”
The hope for the vaccine is that it can be used to treat heroin addicts, by removing the high they get from the drug and their motivation for taking the drug at all. This could help prevent relapses in addicts recovering from addiction.
For the trial, monkeys were injected with the vaccine before being given doses of heroin. The researchers found that four of the monkeys that were given three doses of the vaccine had an effective immune response, which could neutralize various doses of heroin. The effect of the vaccine was found to last up to 8 months but was most effective in the first month after it was administered.
Two of the four monkeys tested had been pre-vaccinated with the same vaccine in a previous study, seven months prior to this one. Raising hopes of an effective long-term vaccine for heroin, these two monkeys showed a much higher response to the vaccine in this second round of experiments. If this effect is replicated in humans, this could mean that heroin addicts could be given long-term immunity to heroin, helping with their recovery.
While the research, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, looked only at heroin, the same logic can be applied for all opioids.
The team plans to license the vaccine to a third party partner and continue clinical trials.
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