Is a Vaccine the Solution to Heroin Addiction?
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The toll that opiate addiction, both painkiller addiction and heroin addiction, is taking on this country is devastating and severe. Overdose deaths, broken families, stagnating lives, and medical and mental health emergencies – these are just a few of the most significant consequences that occur when an opiate addiction develops and goes untreated.
In response to this epidemic, there has been an outpouring of support in terms of altered federal and state legislation, changes in medical and law enforcement protocol, as well as a constant influx of research designed to better understand the nature of the drug and identify effective treatments, if not a cure.
One of the foci of research has been the creation of a vaccine that would block the development of an addiction to opiate drugs in users by essentially blocking the person’s ability to get high. Barring the constant use of naloxone, a drug that blocks opiate drugs from binding to the opiate receptors in the brain and causing a high, there is currently no way to stop this process from occurring – other than avoiding all use of these drugs.
Opiate Addiction Vaccine?
According to a study published in the journal Angewandte Chemie, scientists may be well on their way to developing such a vaccine. Researchers have created a vaccine that is effective in blocking the high created by use of the opiate drug, fentanyl – in mice. Of course, this is a long way from a usable vaccine that is safe and effective for use in humans, but it is a promising step toward developing one more tool to prevent new cases of opiate addiction in the future.
Fentanyl is an opiate drug, like heroin. While the vaccine currently in the works would not be effective in blocking heroin addiction or overdose in recipients, it may be key to developing a vaccine that will fight the heroin problem and ultimately neutralize the epidemic of overdose deaths caused by use of heroin laced with fentanyl as well as painkiller overdose deaths.
How It Works
In this study, researchers injected mice three times every week with molecules of fentanyl. After six weeks, the mice could not get high on fentanyl, regardless of the dose they were given.
The vaccine works by introducing molecules into the mouse that mimic the core structure of fentanyl. In response, a mouse creates antibodies that would neutralize those molecules. These antibodies then bind to the drug when it is introduced, which stops it from binding to opiate receptors in the brain (the process that causes the high).
The idea is that if there is no high experienced by the user, the pleasure and reward system in the brain, that plays a critical role in cravings and compulsive use of illicit substance, would lie dormant. Thus, there would be no urge to continue using the drug and build a physical dependence on it as well.
Another key result of the study is that in addition to blocking the high caused by fentanyl use, the antibodies that the mice created to neutralize the fentanyl were also effective in stopping an overdose even with the introduction of a high dose of fentanyl.
Kim Janda was lead researcher of the study. In a news release, she said: “The importance of this new vaccine is that it can block the toxic effects of this drug, a first in the field.”
In the Meantime…
Such developments are exciting in terms of their potential for the future. What would a generation that has no risk of developing opiate addiction look like? How many lives would be saved? How many families would thrive rather than struggle?
Though we are not yet at the point of being able to implement these measures, there are a number of research-based and effective tools available to limit rates of new opiate addiction disorders and help those who are living with the problem to connect with treatment.
In recent years, there have been a number of changes that have helped to positively impact the rates of opiate addiction, including:
- Statewide monitoring databases for addictive drugs
- Increased education about the nature of painkillers among family physicians
- Increased education about the risks of painkiller use among patients
- Increased use of drug courts to connect “offenders” with treatment rather than prison
- Reclassification of hydrocodone-based drugs that have high abuse potential
- Federal legislation to increase prevention and treatment efforts
- Increased implementation of drug take-back drop-off points for families to get rid of unsafe and unwanted addictive drugs left over from a prescription
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Treatment Is the Best Hope for Positive Change
For families that are currently facing an ongoing opiate abuse or addiction problem, whether it began with use of painkillers or heroin, or includes both substances, treatment should be the next step. The good news is that:
- Insurance should pay for at least a portion of the costs.
- There are different types of program structures, allowing everyone to find one that fits their schedule and budget.
- There are many therapies and treatments that can be combined to create a unique treatment plan.
- Support is available for friends and loved ones who would like to learn more about addiction, support a family member in recovery, and begin to heal on a personal level.
If someone you care about is struggling with opiate addiction, do not wait to seek treatment.