23 Oct Vaccine for Heroin May Hold Promise, But Research Support Lacking
It has long been a dream of medical researchers to find a remedy for drug and alcohol addiction that could make things easier for addicts trying to stay on the straight and narrow. While it is accurate to say that addiction is a disease and not just a matter of willpower, all of the responsibility for staying clean and sober does ultimately rest on the shoulders of those with substance abuse problems. There is no “cure” for addiction, but if there were some kind of assistance that could lighten a recovering addict’s load, or aid her in her efforts to overcome her chemical dependency, her chances of finding future peace and happiness could be improved dramatically.
Clinical researchers working on vaccines for drug abuse are motivated by a desire to help addicts help themselves. These specialists know that if the human immune system can be trained to recognize drug molecules in the bloodstream as foreign invaders, it will send its agents out to attack and neutralize them. This will render them incapable of binding with the brain cell receptors that have come to depend on their presence, and make it impossible for addicts to get high by taking their drug of choice.
Vaccines for drug use wouldn’t be a cure for addiction in the classic sense. But they could, in theory, reduce the risk of relapse for newly sober addicts still in the most fragile stage of their recovery. Just one moment of temptation can ruin a recovery from addiction, so if the primary reason for going back to drugs were to be removed, a sustainable recovery could be far more achievable.
After years of laboratory study, no vaccine for an addictive chemical has ever been approved for human use. But that could change in the near future. Vaccines for cocaine and nicotine are currently in clinical testing, and some promising work has been completed at the prestigious Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., on a vaccine that could protect heroin users from the terrible consequences of their addiction. The medical scientists responsible for this latter initiative would like to begin clinical testing soon.
But at least for the latter vaccine there is a fly in the ointment. The Scripps Research team has not been able to find the financing they need to take their work to the next level. They have approached pharmaceutical companies, foundations, nonprofit groups, the National Institutes of Health, and wealthy individual donors with a history of supporting innovative medical research, but so far their requests for clinical testing funds have been turned down. Government research grants are always a possibility, but those are quite competitive and that makes them an inconsistent and unreliable source of support.
With their project stuck in neutral, the Scripps research team is pessimistic about getting their heroin vaccine into clinical testing any time soon. As it is, a decade of experimentation and careful data collection might be necessary before final approval for such a vaccine would be given, so time is of the essence. They have been greeted with skepticism from the private sector about the profitability of their venture, while government budget cutting has made funding for addiction-related projects increasingly hard to find.
Pros and Cons of a Heroin Vaccine
The lack of government support is disheartening because cost-benefit analyses prove that good treatment for addiction will save the taxpayers vast sums of money in the long run. But in the present climate, a shortsighted obsession with debt is obscuring the need for long-term investments that will actually solve problems and not leave them bleeding the public coffers dry indefinitely.
Despite its apparent viability, some good questions have been raised about this new heroin vaccine, assuming it someday does move into the testing stage. For example, since the vaccine targets heroin exclusively and will not affect other opioids that enter the body, some wonder if heroin addicts no longer able to get high on their drug of choice might switch over to addictive prescription opioids like oxycodone, fentanyl or hydromorphone. Addicts with a strong psychological need to get high will still be able to do so — if they can get their hands on other drugs in the same class.
Perhaps the most serious objection raised to the idea of a vaccine is that it might encourage more heroin use by making it seem consequence-free. Take away the fear factor that keeps so many away from heroin by letting them know there might be a vaccine available later should they get into trouble, and those who are tempted to experiment with heroin might be more likely to do so.
But despite some real concerns about what a heroin vaccine might actually accomplish, it seems clear that clinical testing should be performed and that it should begin as soon as possible. Preliminary laboratory results suggest there is reason to be hopeful that such a vaccine could play a role in heroin addiction treatment. Money spent to fund this research would have a fairly good chance of paying off in the long run, making it a wise investment regardless of these tough financial times.
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