Researchers at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) believe they are on the brink of developing a vaccine that could block heroin’s addictive high after it proved to be effective in monkeys.
“The vaccine sequesters the psychoactive molecules that heroin produces and prevents distribution to the brain,” said Paul Bremer, a graduate student at TSRI and first author of a study about the vaccine, which was published June 2 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. “It essentially uses your body’s own natural defenses to neutralize the drug.”
Heroin activates opioid receptors in the nervous system, which produces a high and puts the user into a state of euphoria. However, the body becoming too relaxed can lead to an overdose as bodily systems and breathing slow down. The vaccine would mimic part of the heroin molecule in order to train a person’s immune system to fend off the drug as it would a virus. Thus, a person’s body would resist the drug and prevent the user from feeling a high.
Other medications, such as methadone and buprenorphine, already exist to help opioid users fight their addiction. Additionally, naltrexone, or Vivitrol, is administered once a month to neutralize a user’s high. However, the new vaccine could be both cheaper and have fewer side effects as it utilizes the body’s own immune system to fight heroin.
TSRI has been working on the vaccine for eight years, and they’re working with biotech companies to coordinate a human clinical trial.