According to Harvard Medical School, “Researchers have been working on anti-addiction vaccines since 1974.” While cocaine and nicotine vaccines do exist but have not as yet been approved for human treatment, a new vaccine that treats both heroin and prescription opioid addiction may be close to being ready for use. This is an incredible breakthrough, as “it is estimated that between 26.4 million and 36 million people abuse opioids worldwide, with an estimated 2.1 million people in the United States suffering from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers… and an estimated 467,000 addicted to heroin” (National Institute on Drug Abuse).
How Does This New Vaccine Work?
It has been very difficult for scientists working in the field of addiction treatment and research up until now to create a vaccine for heroin or prescription opioid addiction. As stated by the Scripps Research Institute, this is “because the body rapidly metabolizes [these drugs] into several other compounds, making it more difficult to target the drug molecules.” Also, the journal of Therapeutic Advances in Vaccines stated in 2014 that, “Unexpectedly, opioid vaccines do not recognize heroin or morphine and the heroin/morphine vaccines do not recognize the prescription opioids.” Recently, though, those individuals working on the new vaccine have had a breakthrough.
The new vaccine works in the same way that others do with a few modifications and can treat both heroin and prescription opioid addiction. In general, it produces an antibody response, which causes them to bind to the heroin molecules and keep them from crossing the blood-brain barrier. This terminates the heroin molecules’ ability to reach the brain, which is something the drug normally does almost more quickly and efficiently than any other substance of abuse, thus, limiting its ability to create the high addicts crave.
Without this high, addicts may continue to abuse heroin but will not receive the reward they want from taking the drug. In theory, they will eventually stop abusing heroin and other opioid substances because there will be no point in it for them if they cannot get high. In addition, the Center for Substance Abuse Research states, “Many users continue abusing [heroin] even after they no longer experience the euphoric effects, simply to provide relief from the painful, flu-like withdrawal symptoms.” Heroin and prescription opioids, though, will no longer be able to do this either for a person with the vaccine, making these dangerous substances completely useless to the individual. Spending money on drugs will no longer seem like a priority, and the individual can begin to focus on putting their life back together.
Will Treatment Continue to Be the Same?
The vaccine has only been tested on animals up to this point, but if clinical trials are successful, it will likely be integrated into the regular treatment routine for opioid addiction. As always, however, patients will still require care in the form of overdose treatment, often because they may come to a rehab center or hospital as the result of an overdose. In addition, the individual will still require behavioral therapy in order to change the way they see their addiction, help them cope with stress and other negative experiences that could lead to a relapse, and generally give them the psychological help that drug addicts require.
Other treatment options are also in the works alongside this vaccine. For example, those who use buprenorphine products for their addiction treatment may be pleased to learn that there is a buprenorphine implant for the treatment of opioid addiction to be placed on the market soon. This option would negate the struggle many addicts go through each day (“Should I take my medication and avoid relapse or return to drug abuse?”) by making the decision for them for a six-month period. Then, the individual can receive another implant.
Is This Really The Change Addicts are Looking for?
A vaccine like this one is a considerable breakthrough in the way addiction has been treated up until now. According to the NIDA, “The chronic nature of the disease means that relapsing to drug abuse is not only possible but also likely, with symptom recurrence rates similar to those for other well-characterized chronic mental illnesses.” However, this new vaccine could go a long way toward minimizing relapse rates and helping treat individuals with chronic issues of addiction.
The more treatment options there are available to addicts, the better rehabilitation programs become. Every individual is different, and treatment must reflect this important truth. But with the new vaccine for heroin and opioid addiction, patients will receive another, stronger option to help them combat drug use. And, boiled down to its most essential element, it is much more likely that a person will not abuse opioids if they cannot achieve the effects they desire from them.