Inside The Lab: How Close Are We To An Addiction Vaccine?

Posted: Mar 2 2018, 7:29pm CST | by , in News | Latest Science News

Inside The Lab: How Close Are We To An Addiction Vaccine?

Is Science More Powerful Than Drug Addiction?

Substance abuse is a growing problem among Americans, particularly those living in rural, formerly industrial regions of the country and it’s costing local governments, healthcare systems, and employers billions of dollars every year. But what can we do about it? Though many argue that harm reduction policies are the only solution, many scientists believe we’re getting closer to a powerful preventative: the development of an addiction vaccine.

The simple fact is that addiction changes the brain by artificially stimulating our reward center, meaning that willpower and social support just aren’t enough to escape addiction. The goal of an addiction vaccine, then, is to prevent drugs from entering the brain, protecting it from this rewiring.

Vaccine Research

Scientists have been attempting to develop a vaccine against drug addiction for several decades now, and it’s been an uphill battle. More recently, though, they seem to have hit upon a strategy that works. The current vaccine model works by combining haptens – molecules that resemble the targeted drug, and immune stimulating adjuvants. After vaccination the body will create antibodies to bind to the drug, preventing it from crossing the blood-brain barrier.

If drugs can’t cross the blood-brain barrier, then patients won’t experience any of the supposed benefits of illicit substances. And without those positive experiences, individuals have no motivation to use more, preventing the cycle of cravings and the symptoms of withdrawal otherwise seen in addicts.

The Heroin Model

Though the current drug epidemic is driven by a mix of prescription opioids like oxycodone, fentanyl, carfentanil, and heroin, which are all molecularly similar, the vaccine currently being tested only seems to work against heroin. This is chemically surprising since all of these drugs bind to the same receptors in the brain, but this is still the first anti-addiction vaccine to even be eligible for human trials, having shown effectiveness in animal studies. And while that vaccine advances under FDA oversight, other companies are working on vaccines for drugs other than heroin.

A Viable Preventative?

Of course, even if we have vaccines that will work against addiction, an important question remains: Will it be accessible and will anyone use it?

Drug addiction can start during any time in life and parents may be hesitant to inoculate their children against heroin or other drugs, taking a “not my child” stance. And with so much stigma surrounding drug abuse, those already struggling with addiction may be hesitant to seek out such treatment.

Additionally, addiction management medications such as narcan, buprenorphine, and methadone can be hard to access and very expensive. Buprenorphine, for example, was initially limited to 30 patients per doctor. And will insurance cover vaccines against addiction? Since such treatment would be considered elective, it wouldn’t be mandatory. Access needs to be part of the development process, as any such vaccine gets closer to the marketplace.

The development of a vaccine protecting the brain against heroin might just mean that science is stronger than addiction, but unless our social policies are there to support this new science, it won’t take us very far. Scientists need our support to get their innovations to those who need it most.

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The Author

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/68" rel="author">Larry Alton</a>
Larry is an independent business consultant specializing in tech, social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.




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