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Can a Heroin Vaccine Prevent Overdoses?


By Allison Gauss

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

In the United States, medicine is about money. Pharmaceutical companies invest in therapies for common diseases with a large potential for profit. Unfortunately, this means that illnesses and health issues that don’t fit this mold can be underfunded and delayed.

As Dr. Kim Janda of the Scripps Research Institute explained in his talk at the Collaborative, “Pharmaceutical companies don’t look at drug addicts as a good investment.”

Although some medications have been funded by charitable giving—like how the March of Dimes Foundation funded Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine—public philanthropy is driven in large part by sympathy, which rarely extends to drug addiction. “Most people don’t view addiction as a brain disease. They view it as a moral failure on the part of the individual,” said Dr. Janda.

That means that the 30 million people addicted to opioids are falling through the cracks of medical research. Over the past 25 years, however, Dr. Janda has been developing an outside-the-box treatment by asking, “Why can’t we have a vaccine for opioid addiction?”

A Vaccine to Protect the Brain

Most of us have had several vaccines throughout our lives, but not everyone knows how vaccines protect us from disease. Essentially, the treatment familiarizes the body with a disease and teaches the immune system to fight the targeted infection. Without vaccination, the immune system still responds to disease, but it may not be equipped to fight it off.

Vaccines have saved more lives than any other therapeutic.

Dr. Kim Janda

But drugs like cocaine and heroin don’t naturally elicit an immune response from the body. “What I’ve done over the last 25 years is trick the immune system to recognize the drug as foreign,” said Dr. Janda. With the treatment he has been developing, the immune system creates antibodies that keep drugs like heroin from reaching the brain and its pleasure centers.

heroin addiction vaccine slide

In an experiment, a mouse treated with a vaccine for heroin was unaffected by what should have been a lethal dose. Dr. Janda sees the same treatment being used for people in recovery for drug addiction. Relapse is very common for people trying to overcome addiction, but with a vaccine blocking the drug’s effects, someone who uses heroin again would probably not fall back into chronic use.

Dr. Janda explained, “A lot of times, especially with opioids, when people stop taking them they become sensitized.” In other words, their body becomes more sensitive to the drug and a dose they might have used a year ago could kill them. By preventing the drug from reaching the brain, the vaccine’s antibodies could prevent deaths.

From Idea to Impact

Although vaccines are inexpensive to manufacture, the treatment would need to go through costly human trials in order to finally reach the people who need them. “To probably get this through phase three clinical trials would cost 30 or 40 million dollars,” said Dr. Janda. And the families that contact him asking for help don’t have that kind of money.

Although Dr. Janda is working with a biotech company to make progress, he hopes that the philanthropic community will support and propel this work toward implementation. Whatever foundation or funder sees the massive potential of this research will have the opportunity to revolutionize the treatment and prevention of addiction. Where the private sector falls short, the social impact sector can succeed.

To learn more about this approach to treating addiction, watch Dr. Janda’s talk from the Collaborative.

You can also view and download the slides from the presentation.

Join Us at the 2019 Collaborative

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