Experimental Heroin Vaccine Shows Promise in Trials

By Paul Gaita 06/14/17

The heroin-neutralizing vaccine may soon move forward to human clinical trials.

Doctor preparing a vaccine injection.

A vaccine that could block a person who uses heroin from feeling the drug's overpowering "high" has been successfully tested on primates, and may soon be available for human clinical trials.

The vaccine is the product of eight years of research and development by a team from The Scripps Research Institute, which had previously conducted successful trials with the vaccine on rodents. Their vaccine is the first to succeed in trials using primates, and could bode well for developing a safer and more affordable medication to combat the ever-growing epidemic of heroin use and overdose in the United States.

The vaccine is not a cure for heroin addiction, but is instead designed to fight off the psychoactive properties of the drug by mimicking its unique molecular structure. When introduced to the body's immune system, the vaccine would cause the production of antibodies that would prevent heroin molecules from reaching the brain to cause its trademark euphoric high.

"It essentially uses your body's own natural defense to neutralize the drug," said graduate student Paul Bremer, a first author of the study.

By blocking the high associated with heroin use, the researchers believe that the vaccine could discourage users from relapsing. Their experiments with primates indicated that such a response might be possible with humans: four rhesus monkeys were given three doses of the heroin vaccine at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The vaccine had been redesigned for these trials to more closely resemble heroin in order to produce a stronger response from the animals' immune system. All four monkeys responded positively to the vaccine's efforts to suppress the euphoric effects of heroin; the vaccine proved most effective in the first month after receipt, but continued to provide relief for over eight months. 

In addition, two animals—which had received a different version of the vaccine in a basic pilot study seven months prior to these tests—showed even greater resistance to the drug in the second round of experiments. The researchers attributed this response to the animals' immune system holding a "memory" of the vaccine in their antibody-producing cells. If the vaccine proves effective in human trials, it could possibly provide extended immunity from heroin.

As study leader Kim Janda noted, the vaccine is not a "magic bullet"—it does not prevent addiction, nor does it suppress users' cravings for drugs like methadone or Suboxone. Those suffering from heroin addiction can currently find relief from naltrexone (or Vivitrol), which also neutralizes the euphoric aspects of heroin use. But a single 380 mg vial of Vivitrol costs, on average, between $1,300 and $1,700 per shot; the vaccine, by comparison, would cost far less and have few side effects, since it uses the body's own immune system.

The study authors indicated that the next step for the vaccine is to partner with a biotech company in order to develop human clinical trials. They also noted that they are currently working on a vaccine for fentanyl, which has proven successful in preclinical tests involving rodents. Ultimately, the plan is to combine the heroin and fentanyl vaccine in a single shot.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.