As the opioid and heroin addiction epidemic continues to claim more American lives each year, clinicians, researchers, law enforcement, legislators and other stakeholders are working harder than ever to come up with new ways to combat this urgent and pervasive public health issue. Researchers from the Walter Reed Army Research Institute are right in the fray. Led by Dr. Gary Matyas, the team has developed an experimental heroin addiction vaccine that they say may be effective against HIV as well. The vaccine would be intended solely for adult men and women who are already in the clutches of opioid and heroin addiction, and would not replace any other element of treatment or medication-assisted therapy.
How Does the Vaccine Work?
If the heroin addiction vaccine is successfully in human trials, which researchers admit may be years away, it would work by blocking opioids from reaching the brain by way of the circulatory system. The vaccine would create antibodies to grab the heroin or opioids and collect them before they can reach the brain-blood barrier. It would not interfere with patients on regimens for drug like Vivitrol, Suboxone or methadone, medications on which so many patients have come to rely in their long-term recovery. Researchers say the drug would be part of patients’ overall recovery program, and like other medications used in addiction care, would not supplant any other aspect of treatment.
One Piece of An Enormous Puzzle
Even if the heroin addiction vaccine is years away from human application, its development and continued refinement represent a welcome and needed line of thinking in the battle to curb opioid and heroin addiction. Despite escalating numbers of overdoses and definitive clinical proof that addiction is a disease and a public health crisis, funding and even brainstorming for solutions continues to come at a snail’s pace. Obstacles like stigma, lack of nuanced understanding and economics preclude many patients from getting the help they need. If we can use proven and refined science to block patients from experiencing the effects of heroin, it might be the first critical step in an encouraging direction.