Ben Coxworth June 6, 2017
While it may not be possible to cure actual heroin addiction via a simple injection, scientists at The Scripps Research Institute are developing what is perhaps the next-best thing – a vaccine that keeps addicts from experiencing the heroin high. Without that reward available, kicking the habit could be considerably easier. The vaccine was recently proven effective on non-human primates, making it the first vaccine against an opioid to ever do so.
Developed by a team led by Prof. Kim Janda and postdoctoral researcher Paul Bremer, the vaccine exposes the immune system to part of the heroin molecule’s unique structure. The immune system responds by producing antibodies that neutralize heroin molecules, keeping them from reaching the brain.
The vaccine has been in the works for the past eight years, and has already seen success when used on lab rats. More recently, however, it was trialled on four rhesus monkeys, and in a form that more closely resembles heroin.
The monkeys each received three doses, and all subsequently showed “an effective immune response” at neutralizing various amounts of heroin. Although the effect was most pronounced during the first month following the vaccinations, it lasted for more than eight months overall.
Two of the animals had also received the vaccine seven months earlier, for a separate study. They did particularly well in the more recent study, suggesting that their antibody-producing cells had developed a memory of the vaccine. Should that effect apply to humans, it would mean that people receiving the vaccine may develop a long-term immunity to heroin.
As a side note, the vaccine works only against heroin, and not other opioids. This means that patients could still take opioid-based painkillers or other medications as needed.
Scripps is now looking at licensing the technology to a commercial partner, for use in clinical trials on humans.
A paper on the research was recently published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.