Is An Opioid Vaccine Close To Becoming A Reality?

By Bryan Le 08/14/17

"I can't imagine the vaccine would be on the market before the Trump administration is over," said one expert.

 A scientist in laboratory holding a syringe with liquid vaccine.

In a press briefing last week, HHS Secretary Tom Price mentioned opioid vaccines as an exciting new development in the war against opioid abuse, but experts say it won’t be made public for years…if at all.

Despite Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s claims that an opioid addiction vaccine could help in the fight against the United States’ opioid epidemic, health experts say that such a vaccine is a long way from reality.

"One of the exciting things that they're actually working on is a vaccine for addiction, which is incredibly exciting,” Price said during the briefing about the drug epidemic.

However, experts warn that the process through which a drug goes from the research phase to the production phase is a lengthy one. Opioid addiction vaccines have not even begun human trials. Researchers would have to put the drugs through phase one, two and three trials before submitting them for approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), given that the trials were successful.

"He may be a physician, but he's not terribly well-informed about addictions," said Dr. Thomas R. Kosten, a psychiatry professor at the Baylor College of Medicine who specializes in addiction vaccines. "I can't imagine the vaccine would be on the market before the Trump administration is over."

Previously, Dr. Kosten worked on a cocaine vaccine for 16 years before concluding that "it just didn't work well enough for us to continue." Today, he is working on a vaccine for fentanyl, an opioid painkiller that is considered to be 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

While he hopes his work will pan out, he hopes people aren’t holding their breath. "There are no opiate vaccines that have been in people at this point," said Dr. Kosten.

Even if the drug passes trials and goes into full-scale production, it will only be used therapeutically, not as a preventive measure. The intention is not to "mass-immunize a whole bunch of kids," Dr. Kosten said. "That's not at all what they're designed for."

The vaccine is proving to be effective in animal testing, but this is not necessarily good news. “Sometimes, the translation from animals is not necessarily the same in humans. So we have to do the human studies,” said Dr. Ivan Montoya of NIDA’s Division of Therapeutics and Medical Consequences.

The aim of the vaccine is to enable the use of the body’s own immune system to fight opioids before they can reach the brain and take effect. 

“We don't have to modify the brain to produce the effect,” said Dr. Montoya. “You take advantage of your own immune system and prevent access of the drug to the brain.”

He hopes to come up with a vaccine that can block the effects of a wide range of opioids, including fentanyl, heroin and OxyContin.

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Bryan Le grew up in the 90's, so the Internet is practically his third parent. This combined with a love for journalism led him to The Fix. When he isn't fulfilling his duties as Editorial Coordinator, he's obsessing over fancy keyboards he can't justify buying. Find Bryan on LinkedIn or Twitter