Experimental Heroin Vaccine Could Help Combat Opioid Crisis

By Keri Blakinger 12/26/17

Though the preclinical vaccine works against drugs like hydrocodone and oxycodone, it doesn’t conflict with existing medications to treat addiction.

A scientist in laboratory holding a liquid vaccine

Researchers have developed a new vaccine that can block the effects of heroin in mice and rats, according to a paper published this month in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry

The experimental treatment co-developed with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) works by spurring the production of antibodies that block heroin and certain painkillers from crossing the blood-brain barrier in test mice. 

"Although we are still in the early phase, this study suggests that vaccination can be used together with standard therapies to prevent the withdrawal and craving symptoms associated with opioid withdrawal," said Gary Matyas, the U.S. Military Research Adjuvants and Formulations chief at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

"By eliciting antibodies that bind with heroin in the blood, the vaccine aims to block the euphoria and addictive effects.”

Even though the vaccine works against drugs like hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone and codeine, it doesn’t conflict with existing medications to treat addiction, including methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone. The antibodies also don’t react with naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug also known as Narcan.

But the vaccine does not work on fentanyl, a potent and often-abused opioid. While that means it wouldn’t deter fentanyl abuse, it also leaves open the possibility of having access to certain painkillers in the event of a major medical emergency.

"We hope to give people a window so they can overcome their addiction,” Matyas said. So far, it’s only been tested in rats and mice. 

While current medication-assisted treatment methods generally rely on blocking or filling drug receptors in the brain to prevent drugs of abuse from binding and taking effect, a vaccine would represent a completely different approach to the medical treatment of addiction. Instead of preventing a high once the drugs are already in the brain, a vaccine would help the body produce molecules to attack and prevent the drugs from getting to the brain in the first place.  

There’s some possibility that this approach might net fewer side effects, Gizmodo reported. It’s not clear how long the vaccine would last and how often new shots would be required.

This isn’t the first time scientists have worked to fight addiction via vaccine. Researchers have previously explored meth vaccines, cocaine vaccines and heroin vaccines as well. While some past attempts at such treatment have failed, newer ones are still moving through the testing process.  

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.