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San Diego Study: Vaccine For Heroin Addiction Works In Monkeys

A syringe and white powder are seen in this undated photo.

Credit: dkalo / Flickr

Above: A syringe and white powder are seen in this undated photo.

San Diego Study: Vaccine For Heroin Addiction Works In Monkeys

GUEST:

David Wagner, science and tech reporter, KPBS News

Transcript

San Diego scientists say they are closer than ever to developing what could be a powerful weapon in the fight against opiate addiction: a vaccine that blocks the high users get from heroin.

In a recently published study, researchers led by Scripps Research Institute professor Kim Janda report that their vaccine was able to safely and effectively give four rhesus monkeys immunity to the intoxicating effects of heroin.

"We believe this vaccine candidate will prove safe for human trials," Janda said in a Scripps press release.

Video by Katie Schoolov

Vaccination could help recovering addicts avoid relapse, the scientists say. Without the possibility of getting high, they say, the motivation to seek out heroin would be eliminated.

The study shows that the vaccine's effects can be long-lasting. Eight months after vaccination, the monkeys continued to show signs of resistance to heroin's high.

The vaccine works by conscripting the body's immune system, teaching it to recognize heroin molecules and deploy antibodies to neutralize them before they reach the brain.

The research builds on previous studies in mice. The scientists said this is the first time a heroin vaccine has successfully passed trials in primates.

Gavril Pasternak, an opioid researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center who was not involved in the study, told KPBS via email that the vaccine's design — which singles out heroin but not other opiates — has benefits and limitations.

"The subject would still be able to be treated for pain with alternative drugs, if needed," Pasternak said.

"However, this also means that a subject might bypass the protection of the vaccine by abusing opioids with different structures. This becomes an issue today with the increasing availability of fentanyl and related opioids," Pasternak said.

University of Florida opioid researcher Oliver Grundmann said the study builds on previous attempts at creating a heroin vaccine by identifying the right target for eliciting an immune response.

Grundmann said via email, "If the heroin vaccine concept is feasible and a proof-of-concept in small clinical trials shows positive results then this may provide a blueprint for other vaccines against drugs of abuse," including cocaine.

The Scripps researchers said their next step will be to work with an outside company to put their heroin vaccine into human clinical trials.

San Diego scientists say they are closer than ever to developing what could be a powerful weapon in the fight against opiate addiction: a vaccine that blocks the high users get from heroin.

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