Scientists Aiming For Addiction Vaccine

The University of Washington (UW) has high hopes: to develop a vaccine that could be used to counteract the effects of addictive and illegal drugs, prevent overdoses, and save lives.

The work will occur at UW’s Center for Medication Development for Substance Use Disorders, which opened on January 3.

It will be spearheaded by Marco Pravetoni, a professor of pharmacology. Though The Seattle Times reported on January 5 that, at that time, Pravetoni was the only faculty member at UW’s new center, he will likely soon be joined by more allies and experts focused on the same goal. Pravetoni is optimistic about the progress to be made.

Said Pravetoni, “Every year, we’re going to start a new clinical trial.” The professor is eager to buckle down and get to the hard work of developing an inoculation against addiction that will save lives; the bill associated with such a venture will be large, however.

Pravetoni estimates it could cost as much as $300 million.

The center is off to a good start, however, and Pravetoni may have secured up to $50 million in funding so far. According to The Times, Pravetoni’s goal “is to get enough funding to get through at least Phase 1 and 2 — prove his vaccines are safe and likely work — and then get a pharmaceutical company to fund the rest.”

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Addiction Vaccines Have A Long History

The thought of a vaccine for addiction could seem somewhat counterintuitive. Many vaccines function, ultimately, by increasing the amount of antibodies that might be used to fight off a particular virus. But how would a vaccine against addiction work?

As it turns out, much the same way.

According to The New York Times, which reported on the subject of so-called addiction vaccines in 2011, “Like shots against disease, these vaccines would work by spurring the immune system to produce antibodies that would shut down the narcotic before it could take root in the body, or in the brain.”

Unlike the COVID-19 vaccine, best practice for an addiction vaccine would not be to receive the immunization in advance of coming into contact with the thing being immunized against (in this case, illegal drugs). Rather, subjects would be given the vaccine after they’ve already used the drug and developed a dependency.

Animal trials have shown that the idea has legs: rats who were given an inoculation against Heroin no longer experienced the effects of the drug and stopped taking it after they were given a vaccine.

There has been great difficulty in making the jump from non-human animals to humans, however. In one trial of a Nicotine inoculation, the shot didn’t work to help people quit smoking any better than a placebo did.

Researchers have been trying to crack the code for a long time: the first study in a peer-reviewed journal on the subject was published in Nature in 1974. The test subject was a rhesus monkey; according to the study, “Results indicate that antibodies against morphine can block those effects of heroin on the central nervous system (CNS) that maintain self-administration behaviour.”

In other words, an anti-Heroin shot can make a subject stop shooting up. Now it’s up to scientists like Pravetoni, who stand on the shoulders of pioneers like Dr. Kim Janda (whose work involved both the rat experiment detailed above and the Nicotine vaccine trial, and who made advances in the addiction vaccine space for decades) to make those subjects human.

An “Urgent Need For New Treatment Options”

Operation Warp Speed was the endeavor that brought the COVID vaccine, and it was a race against the clock unlike any other seen in the modern age. Now there is a different race against time occurring, perhaps just as important if not more so — the sprint to take an addiction vaccine to market before drugs like Fentanyl claim untold more lives.

According to a piece published in the Drugs academic journal, “Drug addiction is a chronically relapsing brain disorder. There is an urgent need for new treatment options for this disease.”

That was from 2003.

Since then, overdose deaths have skyrocketed.

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug overdose deaths annually went from roughly 27,000 in 2003 to over 40,000 in 2011; by 2019, they had climbed to exceed 70,000.

Annual numbers from 2021 were over 100,000.

The White House has backed an approach to the problem based around harm reduction as opposed to punishment; per the Office Of National Drug Control Policy, primary drugs of concern include “illicitly manufactured fentanyl and synthetic opioids other than methadone (SOOTM),” though other targets include “cocaine and other psychostimulants, like methamphetamine.”

Some of the best minds in the world are working tirelessly on solutions to problems that plague the nation. While their work won’t be easy, some solace can be taken in the words of professor Pravetoni; researchers like him, he says, “are trained to overcome adversity.”

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William Henken

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  • Will Henken earned a B.A. in Advertising and Public Relations from the University of Central Florida. He has had his work published in the Orlando Sentinel, and has previous experience crafting copy for political action committees and advocacy groups dedicated to social justice. Addiction and mental health are personal subjects for him, and his greatest hope is that he can give a helping hand to those seeking healthy and lasting recovery.

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