Scientists are working hard to develop an anti-drug vaccine. Some believe it could play a key role in ending the opioid crisis. Is this the answer we’ve been looking for?
Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a vaccine that could prevent or even cure addiction?
For too long, the approach toward finding America’s heroin epidemic has been to advocate for drug abstinence and punish drug dealers. In reality, however, we know that those things are unlikely to offer any solutions.
Anyone who has ever struggled with addiction knows that it’s always possible to find a fix. Throwing the drug dealer in jail may be an inconvenience to their customers but it won’t cure anyone’s addiction.
And the “Say No to Drugs” campaign? Well, that may have just made things worse.
Fortunately, there is one glimmer of hope in the fight against drug addiction. A group of scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research announced last December that they’re working on the development of the world’s first heroin vaccine. If the vaccine actually works, we could be looking at a major shift in the way drug addiction is treated.
What is the Heroin Vaccine, Exactly?
This anti-drug vaccine is just that—a vaccine—which programs the user’s body to fight off drugs whenever they enter the system. In that way, it’s not much different from those used to prevent polio or pneumonia. It is administered on a semi-regular basis and empower’s the user’s system to combat certain chemicals for a given period of time.
Like the polio vaccine, the pneumonia vaccine or others throughout history, the heroin vaccine help to make society a far healthier place if it were to actually work.
What Makes it So Much Better than Current Options?
While the medications currently available for addiction treatment (naltrexone, buprenorphine, methadone, etc) are helpful, they each have a few glaring flaws. Methadone and bupropion, for example, carry a high risk of abuse and can thus be dangerous drugs in their own right. Naltrexone, while one of the best treatment options available, can also play a key role in overdose if an addict relapses. None of these drugs are capable of diminishing the effects of heroin in the same way that the vaccine supposedly will.
How it Works
Essentially, vaccines work by creating antibodies in the user’s immune system that fight off certain chemicals when they are detected. In this case, the antibodies would be “trained” to identify heroin (and possibly other drugs) as a threat and to remove it as quickly as possible.
The drug functions by targeting our b-lymphocytes. These are tiny, white cells that exist in our bloodstream and fight off diseases. An individual with a healthy, functional immune system has several billion of them in their body. Each b-lymphocyte carries a different antibody, so they all fight different diseases. When they recognize a virus or some other potential threat, they cling to it and work to eliminate it from the system.
In order to activate the b-lymphocyte in such a way that it knows which drugs to get rid of, doctors must strategically introduce the drug into the user’s body.
A Micro-Sized Dose of Heroin
As you may know, vaccines work by introducing a small amount of a disease into the user’s system. In order for a chickenpox vaccine to work, for example, the doctor must feed a tiny bit of chickenpox into your body. This enables your body to identify that chickenpox is a threat and to figure out how to fight them.
In order for a doctor to vaccinate someone against heroin addiction, therefore, they need to place a single molecule of the drug of choice into the user’s bloodstream. This tiny molecule is referred to be immunologists as a “hapten”. The hapten is not nearly strong enough to get the user high or affect them in a destructive way. It simply provides the body with a small amount so that it can build the antibodies it needs to fight the drug.
The hapten must be attached to a protein in order for it to be carried through the bloodstream. This protein signifies to the b-lymphocytes that the material is something worth paying attention to. Additionally, vaccines usually have an “adjuvant” as well. An adjuvant is an agent that increases the strength of the protein.
Reprogramming Your Immune System
It helps to think of b-lymphocytes as a computer and vaccines as a piece of anti-virus software. When you have a vaccine injected into your body, the vaccine hapten finds its way to a suitable b-lymphocyte. Much like a computer knows how to run an antivirus program, your b-lymphocytes know what to do with a hapten. The hapten binds the front of the b-lymphocyte and recognizes it as a threat.
Once it has identified the threat, it basically becomes an antibody factory. It turns into a “plasmocyte” and begins to clone and reproduce antibodies as rapidly as possible. These antibodies are customized to fight off the target drug. Whenever the threat enters your system, the plasmocyte recognizes the intrusion and sends enormous quantities into your bloodstream to combat the offending chemical. Essentially, this would prevent heroin from circulating throughout the body.
Protecting the Brain from Opioids
The heroin vaccine would utilize a tissue filter found on the outer layer of the brain. This tissue filter is referred to by immunologists as the “blood-brain barrier”. It is responsible for protecting the brain from harmful intruders.
Without the vaccine, the blood-brain barrier allows opioids right on in. It doesn’t recognize them as a threat. This is the reason why it’s even possible to get high off of heroin.
If this vaccine were to work according to plan, however, it would prevent heroin from getting anywhere near our opioid receptors. The antibodies produced in the plasmocytes would attack the opioid molecules like guard dogs, clinging to them and pulling them away from the brain as quickly as possible.
Isn’t that what Vivitrol Already Does?
If you keep up with developments in the addiction treatment industry, this might sound familiar to you. Blocking opioids from reaching the brain? Doesn’t naltrexone (the active ingredient in Vivitrol) already do that?
Well, yes and no.
Vivitrol is, in fact, an opioid antagonist. This means that it prevents opioids from connecting with and activating the brain’s opioid receptors. Its ability to block the opioid receptors is one reason why it’s such an effective form of addiction treatment. When a user can’t get high off heroin, they are much less likely to bother taking it.
However, Vivitrol doesn’t keep opioids out of the brain entirely. They are still able to pass through the blood-brain barrier but just aren’t able to connect with the opioid receptors.
This is a crucial distinction to make because it suggests that the vaccine could decrease the number of opioid-related overdoses. Although naltrexone has helped plenty of people overcome their addictions, it does not eliminate cravings entirely. After all, just because a user can’t feel the effects of heroin doesn’t mean that they won’t try to get high if they’re really itching for a fix. Because Vivitrol users can’t feel the effects of heroin, however, they can’t achieve the euphoric high that they seek out. This often causes relapsing addicts to overdose on the drug as a result.
The vaccine is different in that it would expel all traces of heroin from the user’s body as quickly as possible. Ideally, then, the drug would not have time to take effect or cause the addict to overdose.
Vivitrol is one of the best addiction medications currently available. However, if the vaccine were to work out it would be a huge step up in the field of addiction treatment.
How Often Would the Vaccine Need to Be Administered?
It appears that, if it were to work properly, the vaccine would need to be administered on a weekly or monthly basis. The exact time interval would depend on the nature of the user’s addiction.
The reason for this is that the body would require massive amounts of antibodies to fight off a drug as strong as heroin. In order to continuously produce antibodies, the user’s body would require a hapten to trigger higher levels of antibody production.
But Would it Actually Work?
There are no doubts that this is very exciting news. The prospect of a heroin vaccine has huge implications for the prevention and treatment of opioid addiction. However, its developers are encountering a few key problems that need to be solved in order for the drug to work effectively.
The first major problem is that opioids are not just recreational drugs. They are intended to be used, of course, in the treatment of pain. If someone were to receive a vaccination, then, they would be unable to experience any form of opioid-induced pain relief. The scientists point this out in their research, asking, “What would happen if a vaccinated addict in recovery needed pain relief due to an injury?”
In response, the team is testing the ways in which the vaccine responds to other pain medications such as tramadol. It’s important to them that patients have the ability to receive some form of pain treatment in a case where they might need it.
Similarly, the scientists are testing to make sure that the vaccine does not produce negative interactions with other addiction treatment drugs. If the vaccine interacts with naltrexone or bupropion in a way that produces unpleasant side effects, it’s important to know that before we allow someone to put them both into their system.
The Anti-Drug Vaccine: A Supplement to the Recovery Process
Whenever we discuss medications for treating drug addiction, it’s important to remember that these substances can only ever aid in the recovery process. There is always a psychological aspect to addiction in addition to a physical one.
Medications like methadone, naltrexone, bupropion and even this vaccine will only be able to treat the physical symptoms of addiction. They might help patients to get heroin out of their system or even eliminate cravings. However, the addict’s psychological state and addictive tendencies will always need to be addressed if they want to get (and stay) clean.
As the New York Times’ article on the vaccine points out, “relapses are to be expected”. However, the development represents a drastic evolution in our treatment of drug addiction. Hopefully, in the future, we’ll see the development of a vaccine-to-rehab pipeline that helps us to treat addiction and prevent relapses in the most efficient possible manner.
Hop on the Road to Recovery Today
Are you or a loved one currently fighting a battle against drug addiction or alcoholism? We can help you. AspenRidge Recovery offers high-quality addiction treatment in Colorado. Our doctors and staff provide intensive, personalized care to drug addicts and alcoholics from all over the country.
While there may not be an anti-drug vaccine available today, there are still plenty of great resources for addicts in recovery. We can give you the emotional support and medical treatment you need to start living healthy, drug-free life. If you’d like to discuss your drug habit or our services with a staff member, please give us a call.