Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Step in the Right Direction: Scripps Institute’s Heroin Vaccine

As San Diego continues to see an increase in heroin addiction and heroin-related deaths, a local company is making headlines with a vaccine designed to curb addiction to the dangerous drug.

Recognizing that traditional recovery programs may sometimes not be enough for some users, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA announced the development of a successful vaccine against the heroin high in July 2011.

The news of the vaccine has also come at a crucial time. The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office reported that in 2010, there had been 71 unintentional deaths related to heroin.

“We saw a very robust and specific response from this heroin vaccine,” said George F. Koob, chair of the Scripps Research Committee on the Neurobiology of Addictive Disorders, in a July 20 press release. “I think a humanized version could be of real help to those who need and want it.”

The vaccine, intended for people already addicted, works by stopping heroin, and all of the other psychoactive compounds metabolized by heroin, from reaching the brain and producing the euphoric effects. And unlike vaccines developed for heroin in the past, the vaccine being developed by Scripps researchers focuses on binding psychoactive metabolites that most easily crossed the blood-brain barrier.

“The other antibodies sought to bind everything, while ours is a more focused approach,” said Scripps Institute Research Associate Neil Stowe.

As the vaccine is still in the pilot stages, and has only been tested on laboratory rats, it’s unclear what the dose will be for the average human addicted to heroin.

“The antibody titer [concentration] levels start to decline after about a month in rats,” said Stowe. “So the person would have to continue receiving boosts for as long as they want the antibody titers.”

Because heroin withdrawal symptoms are so intense, addicts are often given methadone, a synthetic opioid which produces many of the same effects as heroin. But the use of methadone can also cause side effects, and in some cases, even cause recovering heroin addicts to form addictions to it while in detox.

“There were no side effects caused in rats,” said Stowe of the Scripps heroin vaccine. “Hopefully this will translate to a human vaccine. Vaccines are generally accepted as safe for humans. However, studies will have to be performed to determine if the heroin vaccine does have side effects in humans.”

“It sounds great,” said Julie Brunetto, Clinic Director of the El Cajon Comprehensive Treatment Clinic, of the vaccine. “Anything would be great to help people get off heroin.”

Others don’t see the vaccine as solving many of the underlying emotional issues that come along with addiction.

“When you’re an addict, you’re an addict, and you want to get that high, you want to get that buzz,” said 32-year-old Erica Catton, a former heroin addict who now works as an executive at Narcanon Arrowhead in Canadian, Oklahoma, which is considered to be one of the world’s largest and most successful drug rehab centers. “So if you have the vaccine, you can’t do the heroin, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not in that mindset of wanting to get that buzz or high.”

While there is currently no specific release date for the vaccine, Scripps claims that the preliminary data they’ve gotten from their research into the vaccine is excellent, and is currently working on its optimization.

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