Image Source: Discovery Place
Heroin is widely considered to be the most dangerous, addictive drug there is. It’s incredibly quick to hook its users and notoriously difficult to quit due to the oftentimes severe withdrawal symptoms that set in in as little as eight hours after taking the drug. Additionally, some users report experiencing post-acute withdrawal symptoms that can last for a year or more after detoxing, which is the reason why it’s unfortunately common for recovering heroin addicts to relapse repeatedly.
What if it didn’t have to be that way? What if there was a way to safeguard recovering heroin addicts from the possibility and temptation of relapse? What if relapse was virtually impossible? Relapse prevention has insofar required the continued efforts and strength of conviction of individuals in recovery, but researchers might have found a way to make relapse prevention simple. Welcome the heroin vaccine!
Vaccinating for Addiction and Relapse
By definition, heroin addiction is characterized as a chronic relapsing disorder that causes individuals to obsessively, compulsively seek and use heroin; due to the high addictive potential of heroin, treating heroin addiction typically requires ongoing psychotherapy and sometimes even pharmacotherapeutic intervention to minimize the potential for further abuse and relapse as much as possible. Considering the heroin epidemic that has ravaged the United States and even other countries around the world, the search for more efficient ways of treating heroin addiction and preventing relapse has been an ongoing search requiring the unrelenting efforts of researchers and experts in the field.
The concept and possibility of a heroin vaccine have been a topic of discussion for a number of years now, involving numerous studies that have sought to determine whether it’s possible to vaccinate for addiction. The strategy for the development of the heroin vaccine has been to create antibodies that will bind to the drug in the bloodstream to prevent the drug from entering the brain, which will essentially nullify any sort of “high” or psychoactive effects that the drug would have provided.
The difficulty for creating such a vaccine for heroin, in particular, has been due to the speed with which the body metabolizes heroin, quickly converting heroin into morphine shortly upon entering the body. Therefore, a vaccine for heroin would not only need to include antibodies for heroin, but also for all its metabolic derivatives.
The Dynamic Heroin Vaccine
Previous attempts to develop a heroin vaccine were unsuccessful because those involved failed to account for the level of complexity with which the body metabolizes and interacts with heroin. However, a team of researchers at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California, believe they have cracked the code in terms of creating a ”dynamic vaccine” that is able to nullify the effects of both heroin and its metabolites.
Over the course of the vaccine development, the team has made some pretty illuminating discoveries about heroin and its effects on the brain which cause and reinforce addiction. Professor Kim Janda—Director of the Worm Institute of Research and Medicine—and Professor George F. Koob—chair of the Committee on the Neurobiology of Addictive Disorders—published their initial findings in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in mid-2013, and since then there have been additional observations made concerning the efficacy of the vaccine. However, despite the astonishing results, the government, as well as major pharmaceutical companies, refuse to fund the drug.
“Previous vaccines didn’t take into account these breakdown products,” Janda said. “They didn’t have the specificity of this vaccine that focuses exclusively on heroin. The goal was to stop the morphine from crossing the blood-brain barrier. This vaccine was designed to counter all of the breakdown products involved with heroin in particular. You need to look at how the drug interacts with the body and how the body interacts with the drug.”
Developing a Miracle
According to the literature available detailing the development of the vaccine, the researchers used a multi-haptenic structure in which these particular haptens—antigen molecules that bind to proteins and stimulate the production of antibodies—have a metabolic structure matching the metabolism of heroin. In layman’s terms, the vaccine essentially tricks the body into seeing heroin as a virus and reacting to its presence in the bloodstream accordingly, attacking it and preventing its effects much like an antibiotic would stave off an infection.
This was no small feat due to how quickly heroin begins to break down upon entering the body, being metabolized into morphine and other metabolites. This meant that for the heroin vaccine to work, it must not only promote the production of antigens that block heroin but all the other things into which heroin is converted as well.
In testing this dynamic formulation on rats, it was found that the vaccine was consistently able to sequester the heroin and its derivatives in the bloodstream, preventing the signature attributes of heroin use including the rewarding feeling of heroin use, drug-induced drug-seeking behavior, reoccurring escalation of the compulsion to self-administer heroin following periods of abstinence, and so on. In short, the vaccine not only prevented the “high” that users experience from using heroin, but it also devalued the rewarding, reinforcing, and motivating properties of heroin, even in subjects that were dependent on heroin. Once blocked, the drug is rendered powerless and is flushed from the body.
In the early development of the vaccine, the researchers found that it wasn’t enough to just target morphine, which would have been simpler due to being less brain-permeable than heroin. Because of the rapid metabolism of heroin, many researchers have thought that blocking morphine, which is the primary metabolic product of heroin, would be sufficient enough for the vaccine to be effective. However, the trials showed that simply targeting the morphine metabolite didn’t prevent or decrease the addiction-related behaviors associated with heroin use, which indicated that the actual heroin is more critical to heroin’s psychoactivity than was previously thought.
There were two groups of rats used in the study: A group of rats that were given the heroin vaccine and a group of rats that weren’t. Not a single rat that received the vaccination relapsed, or self-administered heroin. While they were not physically incapable of imbibing heroin, the vaccination more or less cured them of the craving.
In short, the prevention is not only physical but also behavioral. Since the vaccine prohibits the metabolism of heroin and prevents the rewarding effect of heroin use, if a rat would have chosen to relapse, the heroin would’ve been blocked by the vaccine, preventing any sort of euphoria or “high” that might have been expected. The vaccine wouldn’t cause any unpleasant symptoms if heroin is ingested like Antabuse does in alcoholics; rather, it makes relapse pointless due to blocking the physical and psychoactive effects of heroin.
Response to the Vaccine
While you might logically assume that the government and pharmaceutical companies would be excited about a potential vaccine for heroin addiction. But the reality of the situation is quite the contrary. According to reports, there have been no offers from the government or private parties to fund or otherwise encourage the research on this dynamic heroin addiction vaccine.
Unfortunately, it appears that it’s the “bottom line” that is preventing interest in the heroin vaccine; with more money to be made in ongoing prescriptions for Suboxone (buprenorphine and naloxone) and in replacement therapies using Methadone, a one-time vaccine for heroin addiction that only a small percentage of the population would want or need presents a comparatively smaller opportunity to recover costs or make a profit despite the data that suggests it could be game-changing.
At present, Janda and Koob remain hopeful that the heroin addiction vaccine will soon attract interest parties who would be willing to support and fund continued research so that human trials can begin.
If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction to heroin or some other substance, please contact Drug Treatment Center Finder today. We’re here to help addicts begin the journey of recovery, helping those in need find the treatment to succeed.