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Addictions to Heroin and Other Drugs: Can Vaccines Treat Them?

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Addictions to Heroin and Other Drugs: Will Vaccines Treat Them? Divakaran Dileep/PhotoSpin

Chemist Kim Janda of the Scripps Research Institute has created what TIME Magazine has named “the most promising vaccine against heroin addiction ever developed.”

Every week, Janda claims to get an email from a heroin addict, or a loved one of an addict, requesting to be part of a study for a vaccine against addictions. The relapse rate among drug abusers is high, indicating a need for more addictions treatment options.

However, despite creating what seems like a promising vaccine to cure heroin addiction — a rising epidemic in the United States — Janda currently has no trials in which to enroll any participants. That's because no pharmaceutical company wants to fund the research and development of addiction vaccines.

There are several reasons a vaccine for addiction is not currently available on the market. Many clinical trials that have tested addiction vaccines on humans have resulted in indefinable results.

The TIME magazine article details why scientists such as Janda have trouble marketing these vaccines. A 2014 cocaine vaccine study described the results as “disappointing.” Results such as these do not set an ideal precedent for people like Janda to get funding to create such vaccines.

A heroin vaccine is not the first pharmacological method developed to treat addiction. The FDA has approved a handful of drugs that aid in curing drug and alcohol addiction.

Naltrexone and acamprosate are two FDA-approved drugs for alcohol addiction. In addition, opioid addiction is treated by prescribing buprenorphine to curb withdrawal symptoms and naltrexone can reverse an opioid overdose.

Creating vaccines for addiction is a challenge due to the complex nature of the interaction between addictive drugs, and the body and brain.

Addictive drugs directly influence your brain’s reward systems, which are used for survival. Ideally, addiction vaccines have to interfere with the brain’s reward system without causing deleterious side effects.

Vaccines to treat addiction work by introducing drug-specific antibodies into the bloodstream. These antibodies bind to the drug and prevent its entry into the brain.

However, there is a drawback regarding vaccines against drug abuse. That is the lack of protection against a structurally dissimilar drug that produces the same effects as the abusers drug of choice.

Janda’s vaccine has been tested on rats and acts like a sponge in the bloodstream. This sponge sucks up the addictive drug and prevents it from reaching the brain.

The vaccine blocks receptors in the brain so when a drug reached the brain it can’t activate the brain like it normally would. The destructive cycle of chemical dependence leading to addiction is disrupted.

Those skeptical of the idea of addiction vaccines point out that creating a vaccine is only partially effective. Addiction is physical as well as psychological, so a vaccine would only treat the physical aspect of addiction.

Vaccination that is forced or coerced is, from a scientific perspective, less effective and can raise legal and ethical concerns. Vaccination will be most effective if the individual is highly motivated to quit using drugs, and has enrolled in a comprehensive treatment plan.


TIME Magazine. Why you’ve never heard of the vaccine for heroin addiction. April 12 2015.

NCBI Pubmed.gov. Vaccines against drugs of abuse: a viable treatment option? April 12 2015.

Reviewed April 14, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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