News / Science & Technology

Scientists Develop Experimental Vaccine Against Heroin

Jessica Berman
Scientists have developed an experimental vaccine to treat heroin addicts.  Such a vaccine would be a major advance for both public health and safety.  Addiction to the powerful, illicit narcotic not only destroys human lives, but also fuels a violent global drug trade.  

An estimated 20 million people around the world are addicted to heroin and related opiates.  Their addiction, and frequent use of contaminated syringes, put heroin users at risk of a variety of diseases - notably HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.  They are also more likely to die prematurely, either from a drug overdose or the violence related to drug trafficking.

Drug relapse after conventional treatment for heroin addiction is an especially difficult challenge.  The experimental vaccine may prevent addiction even if a user is re-exposed to the drug.

The heroin vaccine developed by Kim Janda and colleagues at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California essentially tricks the body's immune system into thinking heroin is a pathogen, like a bacterium or virus.  

The experimental compound stimulates the production of antibodies that keep the drug from reaching the brain, which is where Janda notes the drug  produces the euphoric high that heroin addicts crave.

"So, it creates like a wall to block the drug from entering the brain, the pleasure centers," said Janda. "And when it’s in circulation, our own body has enzymes that degrade heroin.  And as it degrades it loses its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, it loses its potency and eventually it’s just removed.”

Janda, a chemist and immunologist, says developing a vaccine against heroin has been especially challenging because the body rapidly metabolizes the drug into several byproducts, the last being morphine, the compound which actually triggers the high.  

So, researchers had to develop a pretty versatile vaccine - one able to empower the immune system to recognize and produce antibodies that bind to all of the breakdown products before they reach the brain.

In experiments with heroin-addicted rats exposed to an unlimited supply of the drug, Janda says the results were striking.  The drug-sated rodents were detoxified for one month, a period similar to a human going through drug rehabilitation.

Next, researchers divided the rats into two groups, again giving them as much heroin-laced water as they wanted.  Only this time, Janda says half the rats had been vaccinated against heroin.

“What happens if you don’t vaccinate them [is] they re-escalate and double the amount of intake," he said. "In the case of the [rats given the] vaccine, they completely don’t recognize the heroin at all and stop taking it.”

None of the vaccinated rats relapsed after being re-exposed to heroin.  

The National Institute on Drug Abuse, which has been interested in drug vaccine development, helped fund the research.

David Shurtleff, acting deputy director of the institute, says a heroin vaccine is not a "magic bullet" [complete cure] and would have to be used as part of a comprehensive treatment program that also addresses drug-seeking behavior.  Like heroin-addicted humans who continue to crave the drug even after going through treatment, Shurtleff notes that the vaccinated rats persisted for a while in trying to get high.

"Once they are in an environment where they've been using the drug, they start to crave the drug and they will use it even though the vaccine may kick in to prevent the high," said Shurtleff. "They will still try and attempt to take the drug to overcome the craving, to reduce the craving for the drug.  So, there's a lot of behavioral [elements] to addiction beyond what the vaccine can do."

Scripps investigators are currently seeking funding to begin human trials of the vaccine, possibly by later this year.

An article describing an experimental heroin vaccine is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  

You May Like

Isolation, Despair Weigh on Refugees in Remote German Camp

Refugees resettled near village of Holzdorf deep in German forestland say there is limited interaction with public, mutual feelings of distrust

Britons Divided Over Bombing IS

Surveys show Europeans generally support more military action against Islamic State militants, but sizable opposition exists in Britain

Russia Blacklists Soros Foundations as 'Undesirable'

Russian officials add Soros groups to a list of foreign and international organizations banned from giving grants to Russian partners

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle reports from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs