The Vaccine Reaction

On Mar. 19, 2018, the White House announced the “President Donald J. Trump’s Initiative to Stop Opioid Abuse and Reduce Drug Supply and Demand.”1 The program will include “supporting research and development for a vaccine to prevent opioid addiction and non-addictive pain management options.”1  This support will help “boost” research being conducted on experimental heroin vaccine for mice and rats at the U.S. Military HIV Research Program at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (WRAIR).2 

The experimental new heroin vaccine, which was co-developed at National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), stimulated the production of antibodies that bound to heroin, thus preventing the drug from crossing the blood-brain barrier3 and preventing the “euphoric effects” of heroin in mice and rates.2 4

According to Gary Matyas, PhD, chief of adjuvants and formulations for the U.S. Military Research Program (MHRP): “By eliciting antibodies that bind with heroin in the blood, the vaccine aims to block the euphoria and addictive effects. We hope to give people a window so they can overcome their addiction.”4 

The results of the WRAIR/NIDA research were published as a study in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry on Dec. 13, 2017.5

“Although we are still in the early phase, this study suggests that vaccination can be used together with standard therapies to prevent the withdrawal and craving symptoms associated with opioid withdrawal,” stated Dr. Matyas.4

The heroin vaccine alone is not envisioned to solve the opioid epidemic. “This is not any kind of magic bullet,” says John Franklin, MD, chief of addictions in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University. “This is another tool to give opioid users a chance.” Dr. Franklin notes that the heroin vaccine would have to be administered in repeated doses and would be very expensive.2 

While it is unclear how much money the Trump administration plans to spend on developing the heroin vaccine, the administration has requested a total of $13 billion in new funding over the next two years for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to “combat the opioid epidemic by expanding access to prevention, treatment, and recovery support services.”2 6

Other institutes, including the Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), have been working on the development of a heroin vaccine during the past decade. In June 2017, TSRI completed pre-clinical testing of a heroin vaccine. However, the pharmaceutical industry has, thus far, been reluctant to fund human clinical trials for such a vaccine.7

According to journalist Rishma Parpia of The Vaccine Reaction: “It has been speculated that Pharma is uninterested in the heroin vaccine because of their financial success with current drugs on the market used for the treatment of opioid dependence. There are approximately thirteen prescription drugs on the market used for treatment of opioid addiction withdrawal/dependence.”7