The concept of inoculation or using inactivated “germs” to prevent disease, was used by eastern physicians as far back as the 10th century. While vaccines have changed healthcare dramatically by preventing formerly dreaded diseases like smallpox and polio, people still get sick. Not all diseases can be eradicated by vaccines, but many can be controlled.
Similarly, the development of vaccines for use in addiction treatment may transform how addictions are treated, but they do not mean that people will no longer develop addictions. However, with a disease as complex and chronic as addiction, healthcare providers need a range of tools with which to help people overcome addiction.
Vaccines may someday become part of the treatment toolkit used by addiction treatment providers, alongside methadone, bupropion, behavioral therapy, and other techniques used today, and that is exciting news.
How Vaccines Against Opioids Are Expected to Work
The simplest way to explain how vaccines against opioid addiction are expected to work is that they make the individual drug molecules too big to cross the blood-brain barrier, rendering them essentially ineffective. A person would be vaccinated against their drug of choice – say opioids – and then if they took opioids, their body would automatically generate antibodies that would bind to the opioid molecules in the bloodstream. Once this happens, the molecules become too big to cross the blood-brain barrier, which means the drug could not activate its target receptors in the brain. Thus, the brain’s reward feedback loop would be interrupted, and the drug user would not experience the expected effects.
The Next Step Is Human Trials
This type of vaccine has been developed in laboratory animals and has achieved promising results. However, the fact that something works in lab animals does not mean it will work in humans, and so far, human clinical trials have been disappointing. Vaccines against substances will not be one-time vaccines, either. It is currently unknown how long the effects of a single vaccination may last.
However, the good news is that researchers have learned much about translating animal results into human subjects in the decade or so since the last, disappointing human clinical trials of anti-addiction vaccines were attempted.
Human trials for the latest anti-addiction vaccines have not yet begun, but that may change in the next few years. It will not be a moment too soon, either, since an estimated 115 people in the United States die of opioid overdose every day.
Vaccines Envisioned as Part of Comprehensive Treatment
It is important to understand that vaccines are not expected to solve the addiction crisis by themselves. Rather, if successful, they are expected to become part of an overall, comprehensive approach to addiction treatment. One thing healthcare providers do know is that addiction treatment must be holistic, and it must be personalized.
Co-occurring disorders such as depression or anxiety must be addressed alongside the addiction itself, and treatment may include medications, various types of talk therapy, support group meetings, and help with transitioning back to everyday life after rehab.
Help Is Available Now, So There Is No Reason to Wait
Vaccines appear promising, and hopefully someday in the not-too-distant future they may be included in treatment programs for opioid abuse disorders. But that is absolutely no reason to wait if you are caught in the spiral of substance abuse. Effective addiction treatment is available right now, and the sooner you get treatment, the greater your chances of recovering from your addiction for the long term.