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The Lede, Opioid Vaccines: Hope Amidst an Epidemic

The Lede, Thursday, March 22, 2018
By David Royse

A Simple Opioid Addiction Fighting Idea You May Not Have Heard Of

The federal government this week released President Trump’s “Initiative to Stop Opioid Abuse and Reduce Drug Supply and Demand,” a worthy goal for sure considering how opioid overdoses are now the leading cause of injury death in the United States, outnumbering both traffic crashes and gun-related deaths.

The release of this initiative was overshadowed by the president’s message on the topic – which included a mention of seeking the death penalty for drug dealers. That idea got most of the attention, unfortunately, because there are so many other important things surrounding this issue.

I just got around to reading the president’s initiative this morning.

And something jumped out at me immediately that I thought was worth highlighting to you, dear readers.

Scientists have been working for a long time on a heroin vaccine and the research is VERY promising.

You read that right. And, of course. If addiction is a disease, why not consider treating it like a disease. Couldn’t you immunize people from becoming hopelessly addicted?

From the president’s initiative, right up near the top. A chief aim of the administration is to:

Support research and development efforts for innovative technologies and additional therapies designed to prevent addiction and decrease the use of opioids in pain management.

  • This will include supporting research and development for a vaccine to prevent opioid addiction and non-addictive pain management options.”

The idea of a heroin or opioid vaccine got a little bit of press attention around Christmas time, but I don’t remember seeing this.

So let’s go back to December:

Scientists at the military’s Walter Reed Army Institute of Research announced they’d developed a vaccine that could block the euphoria felt when people use opioids. They hadn’t fully tested it yet (and presumably still haven’t completed human testing.) As of right now, nothing’s been approved in this area by the FDA.

From Fierce Biotech:

“The vaccine, co-developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute on Drug Abuse, works by producing antibodies that prevent heroin from crossing the blood-brain barrier. In a study, the researchers showed the vaccine also produces antibodies against hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine and other commonly abused substances. The research was published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry.”

In doing a little additional research I found that this is different than something like methadone – which is a replacement therapy – a withdrawal drug. Methadone IS an opiate, though a less dangerous one, and it’s prescribed to help ease addicts into using less. The new vaccine being studied by the government actually blocks the effects of opiates.

A scientist at Scripps Reserch Institute in California has been working on this for years – and has had remarkable results in rats. The researcher, Kim Janda, was working on adiction vaccines for decades, and has gotten only a little attention.

Here’s a check-in on Janda’s work in this regard from way back in 2011. That year, Janda and colleagues published a paper in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry on their discovery of molecules “that stop not only heroin but also other psychoactive compounds metabolized from heroin from reaching the brain to produce euphoric effects.”

“In my 25 years of making drug-of-abuse vaccines, I haven’t seen such a strong immune response as I have with what we term a dynamic anti-heroin vaccine,” said Janda in that article.  The New York Times did a story about Janda’s research. But, as now, it hadn’t yet been approved for use in humans. The Times said families of heroin addicts would actually show up at Janda’s lab looking for a little bit of the vaccine.

“What am I supposed to do, go in the lab and pull it out of the refrigerator and inject you?” he said in that story.

But at the time, the country was only beginning to see the new opioid crisis. In fact, we didn’t even know yet what a problem prescribed opioids would become – I’ve posted a video below where Janda notes that researchers wanted to isolate the drug’s effect to heroin so it wouldn’t interfere with painkillers – like oxycodone.

Time Magazine took note of the work four years later after the lab published more startling results from its rat research.

“It’s really dramatic,” says Dr. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) who was involved in the heroin vaccine research. “You can inject a rat with 10 times the dose of heroin that a normal rat [could handle] and they just look at you like nothing happened. It’s extraordinary.”

But it still wasn’t available to humans. “No pharmaceutical company is going to fund trials for heroin, no way,” Janda was quoted as saying then.

It seems the problem has gotten bad enough that the government is now doing the research too, and the president wants it pursued.

Janda has also published on efforts to use the method to fight Fentanyl addiction.

This seems promising, and I’ll start following it closely, and hopefully report back to you with some positive news before too long.

MORE READING on this from:
The In the Pipeline Blog last year

Business Insider had a story looking at Janda’s research and the work of Gary Matyas at Walter Reed last year

The Follow
Ice Bucket Challenge Wasn’t Just for Awareness

Remember the Ice Bucket Challenge, a year ago or so, when everyone was dumping water on their heads for ALS? It raised awareness – but it also raised some money.

I noticed a report yesterday on some of the research funded by the Ice Bucket Challenge, that’s led to a key new understanding.

More from the Boston Herald



Unity Biotechnologies 
Is preparing to bring a drug for musculoskeletal disease into clinical trials as it seeks to extend lifespan and healthspan. Fierce Biotech

She Is Code
Is exposing young girls of color to STEM. Chicago Inno

Had good earnings, will boost video investment. Reuters

Mark Zuckerberg
Went on a media tour to try to blunt Cambridge Analytica damage at Facebook. AP

Elon Musk
May get his chance to build a high-speed train to O’Hare. Chicago Inno

Quick Cannabis News Roundup

Effort to shield state marijuana industries from feds falls short in Congress. Denver Post.

Medical marijuana licensing is off to a rocky start today in Michigan. Nobody got one. Detroit Free Press

Nebraska Likely Won’t Have Medical Marijuana On This Year’s Ballot. Wayne Daily News

Connecticut Likely Won’t Have Non-Medical Marijuana. Hartford Courant

Utah gov signs bill allowing cannabis for terminally ill. Fox 13


OK, maybe I need to make it quote of the decade, because it comes from back in 2015

George Koob on heroin vaccine research: “You can inject a rat with 10 times the dose of heroin that a normal rat [could handle] and they just look at you like nothing happened.”


As always, I welcome your thoughts. @daveroyse on Twitter or dave.royse@ledetree.com


About David Royse

David Royse
David Royse is the Editor-in-Chief of Ledetree.com. He has been a professional journalist for more than 20 years, including stints with The Associated Press and The News Service of Florida. He enjoys writing about health and medical science, and hopeful stories about scientific breakthroughs and new technology.

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