Is There a Heroin Addiction Antidote?
Did you know there’s a vaccine that has the potential to end heroin addiction? I didn’t think so. Most people have no idea this new medication exists. It’s not for lack of scientists trying though.
Kim Janda, of the Scripps Research Institute, and Dr. George Koob, Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, have been working tirelessly on an “anti heroin vaccine.” Their efforts paid off in late 2012 when, after decades of addiction vaccine work, they developed a compound that stopped heroin from producing euphoric effects in rats.
That was two years ago. How come this medicine isn’t on the market? How come heroin addicts everywhere don’t have access to it? I’ll explore those questions later. First, though, let’s look at just what this vaccine is and how it works.
The Anti-Heroin Vaccine
According to Time Magazine, this anti heroin drug has enormous potential. They recently talked to Dr. Janda and Dr. Koob about its likely benefits in humans. Janda is quoted as saying, “The heroin one [vaccine] has been our best success in over 25 years of working—it’s the best data we’ve seen” (Time).
Dr. Koob had the following to say, “It’s really dramatic. You can inject a rat with 10 times the dose of heroin that a normal rat [could handle] and they just look at you like nothing happened. It’s extraordinary” (Time).
Sounds pretty good, right? So, how exactly does this heroin addiction vaccine work? How does it keep rats, and hopefully humans, from getting high? Well, the answer’s simpler than you might think.
The vaccine works like a molecular sponge. Once injected, it enters the blood and stays there. Then, when heroin is introduced to the body, it springs into action and “sucks” the heroin up. In this way, heroin never has a chance to cross the blood brain barrier and produce psychoactive effects.
Dr. Janda and Koob’s vaccine is a bit different from more “traditional” addiction medication. Most currently available meds work by filling specific drug receptors in the brain with an inert compound. Then, when the drug is taken, it enters the brain, but can’t produce euphoric effects because it has nothing to bind to.
This new vaccine throws that mold out completely and focuses on preventing the drug from ever reaching the brain. It’s a bold concept developed by Dr. Janda over his decades of addiction vaccine research. In fact, he’s also developed vaccines for meth, cocaine, and date rape drugs.
So, given the effectiveness of this new medicine in rats, why isn’t it being tested in humans?
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Why No Human Trials are Occurring
With a drug this promising, you’d expect it to be tested on humans. However, that seems like a near impossibility to Dr. Janda. ““No pharmaceutical company is going to fund trials for heroin, no way. For meth? No way. Forget about it” (Time).
And what a shame! Here is a way to potentially end heroin addiction – and it simply isn’t being funded properly.
Now, that isn’t to say the vaccine is getting no funding. The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) allocated just over twenty-seven million dollars to addiction vaccine research and development in 2014. However, the amount that Dr. Jarda and Dr. Koob received wasn’t enough to fund clinical trials in humans.
Again, what a shame! Let’s cross our fingers that one-day a vaccine will be available to help struggling heroin addicts.
Other Medical Options for Opioid Addiction
There are a number of currently approved medications that help treat heroin addiction. These are things like Naltrexone, Narcan, methadone, and Buprenorphine.
Find a breakdown of currently available options below:
This is a long-acting opioid receptor antagonist, or blocker. It does exactly what I described above, flooding opioid receptors with a compound that’s inert. This prevents addicts from receiving any euphoric effects upon taking an opioid drug. Naltrexone also reduces the craving for alcohol in many patients.
This is a fast-acting opioid receptor antagonist. With the generic name Naloxone, Narcan is almost identical to Naltrexone. The only difference between the two is their onset of action. Narcan is fast-acting and primarily used to reverse opioid overdoses, while Naltrexone is used to help prevent addicts from relapsing.
This is a long-acting synthetic opioid. Methadone is used in something called ORT, or Opioid Replacement Therapy. Methadone is usually administered to former heroin or prescription pill addicts. Due to it’s long half-life, one dose fills the brain’s opioid receptors and prevents withdrawal for up to twenty-four hours.
This is an incredibly interesting chemical, as it’s both an opioid antagonist and agonist. This means that it simultaneously actives and deactivates the brain’s opioid receptors. Buprenorphine is a stronger agonist, so it’s used primarily as another form of Opioid Replacement Therapy.