Is There a Heroin Vaccine In Sight?
Yes, there is a vaccine for heroin that’s being worked on even as you read this. Unfortunately, we’re still years away from accessing it for the people getting help in drug rehabilitation programs today. Since the FDA seems to have only two speeds—slow and stop—it will be quite some time before we see this drug on the market.
Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in La Jolla, California, have tested a vaccine on rats with good success so far. All of the rats were induced to heroin addiction and then detoxed. Half of them received the vaccine, and the control group did not. All of them were then put in a setting with a lever that would dispense heroin doses on demand. The vaccinated lab rats showed no interest in using. There was also a second component to the study that demonstrated the compulsive behavior typical of addicts, whether they are rats or people, was no longer evident in the vaccinated rats.
The researchers have stated that the primary challenge was finding a way to attach the vaccine to molecules in the bloodstream. Heroin, once injected, rapidly metabolizes into several compounds, ending with morphine, with molecules too small to carry the vaccine. However, the researchers overcame this by attaching the vaccine to larger molecules of protein. In that way the vaccine made it into the brain and effectively stopped the brain from responding to the administered opiates. Since addiction stems from the brain’s pleasure/reward center responding overwhelmingly to heroin, this means that once we have been vaccinated we will no longer be overpowered by a compulsive urge to use and just keep using.
That will be big news for the estimated 20 million addicts around the world, once it comes to pass. It will mean that people will no longer suffer the behavioral and physical destruction of heroin addiction. It will reduce the incidence of illnesses related to heroin use such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. It will eliminate the violence that occurs in the drug underworld, and it will wipe out the criminal element’s global choke hold on drug addicts.
The vaccinated rats were subsequently re-exposed to heroin, and they had no interest in it. If you or someone you know is struggling with heroin or opiate addiction, you have to know that would be a dream come true.
It won’t be a “magic bullet,” according to David Shurtleff, the acting deputy director of TSRI. It will still be important for addicts to participate in cognitive behavioral therapy to help them overcome addictive behaviors. The rats did try taking the drug, he reports, but eventually they lost interest in it. Since many people move from one addiction to the next, adjunct therapy to work on such compulsivity will be a primary role of the professionals in drug rehabilitation programs.
Also, it doesn’t have an effect on opiates other than heroin and morphine. That means, first, that methadone and buprenorphine will continue as effective therapies for those who opt for medication-assisted treatment. It also means that those who suffer from other opiate addictions, such as Vicodin or Oxycontin, will still need to follow current treatment protocols. While it’s encouraging to know that heroin addicts of tomorrow may find relief a little easier, it’s still important, today, to get help for the people you know who are abusing heroin and other opiates.