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For the past several years, not just in the wake of COVID, the news has been filled with talk of vaccines. We debate their use on social media, follow news reports about the efficacy of certain vaccines, and eagerly await updates about new vaccines to treat a wide range of health conditions. The news, now, of course, is filled with studies and updates about COVID-19 vaccines. But what about other serious health conditions? What about vaccines for addiction?
The medical community has long told us that drug and alcohol addiction are incurable conditions that can only be effectively managed with abstinence, and, indeed, that has been the case. Alcohol and drug addiction change the brain’s chemistry, leaving an individual vulnerable to the relapsing aspects of the disease. Unless the person can refrain from using drugs or alcohol, they can relapse and fall back into their former pattern of substance abuse.
Although the worldwide COVID pandemic has temporarily eclipsed many other health issues faced by people across the country, research into other potentially life-saving vaccines is also underway. For instance, the National Institutes of Health reports that researchers are wondering “whether a vaccine can treat opioid use disorder.” We rely on gold standard vaccines to prevent a wide range of viral health conditions ranging from polio to HPV. Now, researchers are trying to determine if an opioid vaccine could potentially provide some substantial protection from the serious effects of opioids, including overdose.
How Could an Opioid Vaccine Work?
Currently, drugs like Suboxone help to treat opioid addiction, so that those addicted can gradually wean themselves off. In essence, these “safer” opioid agonists/partial agonists replace the more dangerous opioid that the person is addicted to. The individuals don’t experience a high, but they also don’t experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, and their cravings are greatly reduced or eliminated.
But a vaccine would work differently because it wouldn’t replace an opioid; it would prevent the opioid from even getting into the brain where it could cause a high or impede a person’s breathing. The research shows how scientists are coming at the problem of opioid addiction from different angles, working to solve a medical problem that has plagued humans since they first used the opium poppy, the source of opioids, recreationally.
What Are These New Opioid Vaccine Candidates?
New York’s Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the NY State Psychiatric Institute are now beginning to test the first opioid vaccines in humans. Anti-opioid vaccines like this one are designed to stimulate the body’s production of antibodies that are supposed to target and then bind to opioid molecules. The antibodies then disallow the opioid molecules from crossing our blood-brain barriers. In short, the antibodies stimulated by the vaccine protect our brain and nervous system from the effects of powerful opioids like Oxycontin and fentanyl.
If the opioid molecules are prevented from reaching the brain, they can’t produce a high or impede our respiratory function. (Opioid overdose is the suppression of respiratory function by opioids or a combination of opioids and other drugs and alcohol.) Other researchers are also working on opioid vaccines designed to target an individual opioid.
Researchers at Boston’s Children’s Center are working on a vaccine designed to target fentanyl addiction. The vaccine would be provided twice per year. Between 2013 and 2016, fentanyl led to a 113 percent increase in opioid-related deaths, making it one of the deadliest opioids. The researchers note that fentanyl is particularly dangerous because it operates in the brain a bit differently than heroin or other opioids. Consequently, administering a treatment like Narcan for fentanyl overdose is often ineffectual.
What Are the Pros of the New Vaccines for Opioid Addiction?
One of the pros of the new vaccine currently undergoing trials—and other vaccines that may soon be as well— is that they give medical providers another avenue to treat opioid addiction. Because the individual will not experience a high if they take an opioid, they will be better able to focus on other therapies that help them change their lifestyle and cope with the triggers that led them to abuse drugs in the first place. They’ll be less inclined to take the drug if it doesn’t produce a desirable effect.
If the trials prove successful, this first opioid vaccine will ensure that people taking Oxycontin will feel a substantial reduction in a pleasurable response or a high. That will show researchers that the opioid molecules are successfully being blocked from the brain.
What Are the Cons of an Opioid Vaccine?
The main downside of an opioid vaccine is that its effects are temporary, and scientists aren’t sure how long the vaccine’s protection will last. That’s why human trials are an important step in the research process. Boston Children’s researchers, for instance, are hoping that their twice-a-year vaccine will provide annual protection.
Also, a vaccine does not target many of the underlying causes of why a person abused opioids or other substances in the first place. If these “triggers” are not addressed with additional therapies, the individual is unlikely to manage the psychological aspects of their addiction. For instance, what’s to stop them from managing their stress with alcohol? What’s to stop them from coping with negative emotions with another feel-good drug like cocaine?
Opioid Vaccines and Other Drug Treatments for Addiction
Essentially, a cure for addiction remains and is likely to remain elusive. The current opioid vaccines being tested now address one physical aspect of opioid use; they block the opioid from reaching the brain. Current drug treatments like Suboxone address another physical aspect. They attach to the brain’s opioid receptors, so that the individual experiences fewer or less intensive cravings for the opioid that they’re addicted to. They also curb withdrawal symptoms.
These are terrific benefits for people attempting to recover from opioid addiction, but they leave many aspects of addiction unaddressed. Medication, in short, can only do so much to treat a condition that also involves psychological and behavioral elements, and these are the aspects of addiction that often lead to relapse.
New Hope for the Future of Addiction Treatment
It’s important to remember that as powerful as opioid addiction is, people learn how to successfully manage it all the time. Even though vaccines and drug treatments may not cure the condition, they can effectively treat it. With the help of medication-assisted treatments like Suboxone and intensive therapies that address the roots of an addiction, many people are able to recover and find freedom from addiction.
Moreover, if these new vaccines prove to be successful, they’re likely to pave the way for further study and more breakthroughs. Between 1999 and 2019, more than 450,000 people lost their lives to opioids. In combination with medically sanctioned therapies, these new drug treatments can help reduce these deaths and help people regain their freedom from highly addictive drugs like heroin and prescription narcotics.
If you are suffering from an addiction to heroin, fentanyl, Oxycontin, or some other opioid, there is help available. Substance addiction can feel overwhelming, but treatment works. Contact us today to learn more.