Could a vaccine help fight our drug addiction epidemic?

It's something that's in the works, but it might not be the simplest solution.

TAMPA - More people in the United States die from drug overdoses than in car crashes each year.  It's why President Trump called the U.S. opioid epidemic an emergency earlier this month.

But what if a fix could be found in a shot, like the one you get for the chicken pox or measles?

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said it's something that's being worked on by researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

While any such treatment option still might be years off from being safe  to test on humans, the prospects are intriguing, according to researchers.

“Basically we're utilizing our own immune system," said Dr. Vicky Buckles, an addiction and substance abuse expert at the University of South Florida.

But unlike other vaccines, which are designed to prepare the body to attack an invader, this would instead teach the body to react to the drug before it hits the brain and causes a high, Buckles said.

“When a substance enters the body our body doesn’t react until it reaches the brain," she said. "The idea is that now we would have anti-bodies that would react as soon as a substance was entered and wouldn’t need to go to the brain."

Because drug molecules are even smaller than already microscopically small viruses, a vaccine would have to make them bigger otherwise the immune system tends to ignore them. Picture Pac-Man, Buckles said, gobbling up the drug before it can have any impact.

"Then it’s no longer accessible to the brain.”

Different drugs would require different vaccine strains for treatment. Experts have cautioned that it shouldn't be viewed as a preventative treatment for addiction.

For 23-year-old Max Kotler, the road to recovery from addiction is a familiar and challenging path. He became hooked on pain pills by age 14 before ultimately becoming addicted to cocaine by the time he reached his 20s.

“When I was using, I would do whatever it took to get that next high," Kotler said “It just progressed into using everyday. I had to wake up and use… it wasn’t even to the point of feeling good.”

He watched his ambitions fade while watching some of his friends die from overdosing before he decided to enter treatment two years ago.

“The amount that I was using, it just seems crazy thinking about it now."

With help from support groups, he's been clean ever since.

And while he believes the concept of an 'addiction vaccine' holds promise, he's also wary of such a development, contending that such a treatment ignores the root issue of addiction.

“It’s amazing they’ve been able to create something like that, but the whole basis of recovery is acknowledging that I had a problem," he said. "Going through a recovery program, it changes  the thinking, it’s not just about the drugs.”

An 'addiction vaccine' would be different from some of the treatments currently available to help addicts, like suboxone or methadone. Those work by attaching to receptors in the brain to block the drug, unlike this proposed vaccine which would prevent it from entering the brain at all.

Researchers predict any vaccine geared toward treating addiction won’t be approved for human use for at least another decade, if not longer.

There is currently a fundraiser on crowdrise to benefit the Scripps Research Institute called “Support Heroin Vaccine Research at the Scripps Research Institute." So far, more than $32,000 of its $60,000 goal has been raised.

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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