Turns out, this is a very real possibility. It’s no miracle cure – this won’t be like vaccinating against smallpox and ridding the world of a dreadful disease. What it might be, if the early indications hold true through clinical trials, is a tool to combat addiction in those who are trying to fight off the addiction. I didn’t realize this, but there have been attempts to create vaccines that would ward off addiction for decades, mostly focused on nicotine and cocaine. This particular study, which has gone as far as proving efficacy in mice and monkeys, is targeting heroin, or rather, the metabolites which heroin breaks down into once it enters the bloodstream.
The story behind how it works is fascinating, to begin with. The metabolites of heroin are small molecules, small enough to bypass the blood-brain barrier and affect the nervous system. Which is, of course, why this is an abused substance, because the effects are desirable to some people. However, the immune system simply doesn’t recognize the small molecules, so the researchers bonded the receptors to something large enough that it would catch the attention of our built-in defense system. Being practical folks, they chose something that is already in use – the tetanus vaccine – and adapted it to their purposes.
Now, I say its not a miracle cure because it’s not going to completely eliminate the effects of the drug, and we don’t know yet how long it will last. Longer, certainly, than something like naloxone (more on that, which most people know as Narcan, later) but perhaps not life-long. The effects discussed in the study are a 15% reduction, with possibly even more reduction with increased amount of vaccine given and/or revaccination after a period of time. Those details will have to be worked out in more extensive trials, but the results are exciting, nonetheless. Imagine being able to get a shot when you’re trying to quit smoking. Or taking illegal drugs. The human brain is a funny place, and getting a handhold on an uncontrollable urge might just be what some people need in order to pull themselves up. Furthermore, by using the existing vaccine as a vehicle, this has the potential to be produced relatively cheaply and easily (see in the study about one-pot production. Means the same thing as a one-pot meal. Less mess, less work, easy clean-up).
Because even though we have the ability to revive overdoses from the threshold of death, that doesn’t mean we’ll always be willing and able to do so. Middletown, OH, mere miles from where I sit typing this, and where some of my criminal justice teachers served as law enforcement, is proposing a radical measure in a desperate attempt to control the epidemic of overdoses that are disrupting the city’s economics and emergency services. Three strikes, and you’re out of chances. Basically the proposal (which hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of passing into law, but it illustrates the frustrations) is that after two calls to a specific person having overdosed, and the use of naloxone to revive them, then on the third call emergency services will simply not respond. Unless the person who didn’t pay for their drugs has committed to and served a certain amount of community service. Other local communities are trying different approaches – like giving out overdose kits to the general public, including churches and cab drivers. It’s a sad, bad world out there, and it’s not getting any better soon.
If we can develop a vaccine against certain substances, it could be a very good thing. Hopefully continued study will get the support – and have the results – necessary to gain another tool in this fight.