A Vaccine Can Help People with Addiction to Opioids
A new opioid vaccine is being tested to prevent overdoses. The trial is being held at the Valegos College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. All participants are housed either at Columbia or another clinic because they are given nonlethal doses of opioids like heroin to see how the vaccine works when these drugs are present. If this vaccine is found to be effective, it could be another tool to use against the harmful opioid epidemic. The vaccine is similar to other vaccines, but the immune system is trained to target opioids instead of viruses and other disease-causing pathogens. The trial is specifically working with oxycodone, the opioid found in prescription drugs like OxyContin.
The vaccine is not meant to prevent cravings, it is just an extra layer of protection for high-risk people. People would also take anti-craving medications if they are given the vaccine. The vaccine would help create antibodies that bind to oxycodone, preventing it from getting to the brain. This would help prevent death because opioids kill people after they enter the brain and cause people to breathe at much slower and dangerous levels. We are many years away from the vaccine being used clinically, but more people are noticing and recognizing that the vaccine could be very useful.
If the vaccine is utilized, current overdose deaths could be decreased. Last year, there were 93,331 people who died from overdoses, with opioids causing 70 percent of these deaths. In 2019, it was found that 1.6 million people have opioid use disorder. People with this disorder have a physical dependence to opioids and it is almost impossible to quit, even if they are helped by professionals. Many of these people were introduced to opioids through prescription painkillers, and later developed a dependency.
According to a survey done by the National Institute on drug abuse, there were 10 million people misusing opioids last year. The amount of people who died from an overdose increased by one third from 2019 to 2020. Fentanyl is the main reason many people are overdosing from opioids. It is 100 times more powerful than morphine and can be found in illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin.
Some researchers want to create a fentanyl vaccine. This type of vaccine would greatly help because very small amounts of fentanyl can kill someone who is not aware they are ingesting it. People who are at risk would be eligible for the vaccine if it becomes available. The vaccine would work the same way as the oxycodone vaccine, so if someone ingests fentanyl, antibodies would bind to the fentanyl and neutralize it before it got past the blood brain barrier.
Researchers believe a vaccine that recognizes multiple opioids would be the best option. Researchers at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California looked at a vaccine that could target fentanyl and carfentanyl. Lab mice had an increase in antibodies to the opioids being tested, which is a good sign. Monoclonal antibodies are also an option, which are man made antibodies that would be injected, adding weeks of protection versus hours.
If the vaccines are successful, they would be combined with other treatments like addiction medication and counseling programs. Drugs like buprenorphine and methadone can help cut cravings, but less than 10 percent of high-risk people can get access to them. Vaccines could be a good option for people who cannot drive or who do not have access to recurring care. If a relapse does occur, antibodies could be in the person’s system, offering protection. A multifaced approach with the vaccine, medications, and counseling could help people who consistently relapse.
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