A heroin vaccine? It’s closer than we think. A vaccine that has been formulated to help block the effects of heroin in mice and rats in proving effective for researchers, and will pave the way for formulating a similar vaccine for humans, according to the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. Developed between researchers with the U.S. Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and National Institute on Drug Abuse, the vaccine goes to work by spurring the production of antibodies that block heroin and other opioid-related painkillers from crossing the blood-brain barrier in test mice.
The vaccine works against drugs like hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, and codeine and doesn’t conflict with existing medications to treat addiction. This means that patients prescribed methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone can still get the vaccine. A person who has the vaccine can still be administered naloxone, an opioid-antagonist drug that is administered when a person overdoses. This means that potentially, a person with an opioid use disorder who has overdosed could be given the vaccine before they leave the hospital.
One drug that the vaccine doesn’t block is fentanyl, a potent and highly addictive painkiller. This means that it wouldn’t deter fentanyl abuse. In the event of a medical emergency, one of the only powerful painkillers that would work for a person with the vaccination would be fentanyl.
“We hope to give people a window so they can overcome their addiction,” Gary Matyas, the U.S. Military Research Adjuvants and Formulations chief at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, says about the vaccine. The vaccine study was preclinical and has only been tested in rats and mice so far. Matyas’s team is also working on a vaccine to help prevent HIV, especially because intravenous drug users are highly susceptible to the deadly virus.
The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) started investigating an opioid-blocking vaccine earlier this year. The vaccine was used to block the “high” of heroin in non-human primates. That was the first vaccine for opioids to pass that stage of preclinical testing.
The race to find an effective heroin vaccine has begun. Let’s hope all of the research is safe, sane and ethical.
In the meantime, many states still need funding for treatment programs, and many other localities are in need of tools such as Narcan for their first responders and others on the first line. Let’s hope there is a budget for that in the new year.