SEP 09, 2021 5:00 PM PDT

Can vaccines help prevent and treat opioid addiction?

WRITTEN BY: J. Bryce Ortiz

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 136 people die from an opioid overdose every day. The most recent data show that 70,630 people died in 2019 from opioid drug overdose. When this number of overdose deaths from 2019 is compared to overdose deaths from 2013, this reflects a nearly 1,040% increase in opioid related deaths. This sharp increase in death rate highlights the expanding opioid drug abuse epidemic plaguing the United States. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that in the year 2019, approximately 10.1 million people, aged 12 or older, abused opioids. Many opioids are prescribed to individuals to treat pain such as following a surgery or accident. However, opioids can be highly addictive and once opioid dependence develops, withdrawal from opioids can lead to undesirable symptoms that interfere with daily life. As such, individuals will often continue using opioids even after a prescription has ended. This is highlighted by the fact that 80 percent of people who abuse heroin started first misusing prescription opioids. Current protocols focus on behavioral interventions for opioid use prevention, or rehabilitation services for individuals who are currently addicted. However, a recently approved clinical trial is testing whether vaccines can prevent opioid abuse. 

In this clinical trial, researchers are testing whether vaccines can help prevent the drugs oxycodone and heroin from being abused. These vaccines were recently developed and essentially work to boost specific types of antibodies that can recognize oxycodone or heroin as they enter the body. As such, if an individual who receives these vaccinations takes the drugs oxycodone or heroin, the antibodies recognize the drugs, bind them, and prevent them from entering into the brain. As the drugs are unable to reach the brain, this prevents the feelings of euphoria that come with drug abuse. Dr. Sandra Comer, a lead researcher on the clinical trial said, “[these vaccines] could help many more people beat their addiction and potentially protect them from an overdose death if a patient relapses.”

While the vaccines have yet to be tested in humans, they have shown high efficacy in preclinical rodent studies. In one study, the vaccines were administered to rats and it was found that the vaccines reduced the addictive potential of oxycodone and heroin, and that the effects of the vaccines were long lasting, lasting for approximately 2-3 months after a single injection. The vaccines are currently undergoing clinical testing in order to determine their effectiveness in humans. But, if they prove effective, these vaccines will be pivotal instruments in saving millions lives and preventing addiction. 



Sources: CDCHHSNIHMolecular PharmaceuticsNeuropharmacology

About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
Science and medical writer | Researcher | Interested in the intersection between translational science, drug development, and policy
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