Vaccines may seem like an old-school solution to a very recent phenomenon of widespread opioid addiction in America. Yet a new vaccine designed to blunt the effects of certain opioids while potentially offering protection from HIV infection is showing promising results in mice.

The vaccine is designed specifically to mitigate the euphoria associated with heroin, and if it is eventually developed for use in people, it could offer a valuable adjunct to traditional addiction treatment while protecting those who use intravenous drugs from the potential devastation of HIV at the same time.

Walter Reed Army Institute of Research Experimental Vaccine

The Military HIV Research Program that is part of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research is developing a vaccine that stimulates the immune system while preventing heroin from crossing the blood-brain barrier. The reason for research into this potential “double” vaccine is that more than one-third of AIDS cases in the United States are attributable to the use of injected drugs like heroin.

A study published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry reported that in mice, the vaccine produced antibodies against heroin and other frequently misused opioids, dampening the impact of heroin by affixing antibodies to the heroin, rendering it unable to cross the blood-brain barrier. The other component of the vaccine is the Army Liposome Formulation (ALF), an immune system stimulator that researchers hope will protect against infection by HIV.

What Vaccine Antibodies Do Not Bind with Is Important Too

Care must be taken with such vaccines to learn exactly which opioids are targeted and which are not. For example, it is important that the vaccine not bind to methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, which are used in medication-assisted addiction treatment and to address opioid overdoses. Fortunately, the vaccine in development does not bind with those medications, so they should still be effective as part of medication-assisted treatment programs.

In addition to affixing antibodies to heroin and making it less effective, the vaccine also works against hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, oxymorphone, and codeine. This will prevent a certain amount of “opioid shopping” by those with heroin addictions because the vaccine renders several opioids far less effective.

Addiction treatment


What if a Vaccine User Needs Pain Relief?

What if a vaccine user is, say, in an accident and is injured and in need of pain relief? This vaccine does not bind to tramadol, fentanyl, sufentanil, and nalbuphine. Therefore, those pain relievers would still be useful in patients who have been vaccinated against the effects of other opioids.

The question naturally arises of whether drug dealers will change the formulations of street drugs to work around the vaccine. Some batches of heroin are known to have fentanyl mixed in, so this is something addiction treatment facilities will have to workaround.

Next Steps in Vaccine Research

So far, the promising studies of heroin vaccines in addiction treatment have only been conducted in mice. The next step is to create versions of the vaccine for humans and begin testing them in controlled conditions. However, the fact that the vaccine worked well in mice gives researchers hope that it will also have similar effects on people. If the vaccine is ultimately developed and granted FDA approval, it may be an excellent tool for not only treating heroin addiction but also for preventing HIV infection among people who use intravenous drugs.

Addiction treatment will probably never be as simple as getting vaccinated against the flu. However, development of this dual vaccine by the researchers at Walter Reed could eventually become an important tool for addiction treatment professionals. The vaccine, along with traditional therapies like medication-assisted treatment and cognitive behavioral therapy, could increase rates of successful recovery and possibly prevent relapses, and that is a tremendous cause for hope.

If you or any of your loved ones are in the throes of opioid addiction, help is available right now. We invite you to learn about our admissions. There is no obligation, and you are welcome to reach out to us at any time.

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