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Experimental Vaccine Blocks Effects of Heroin in Mice

January 8, 2018
New vaccine technology shows promise as a tool to combat the opioid epidemic

Researchers with the U.S. Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) report that an experimental heroin vaccine induced antibodies that prevented the drug from crossing the blood-brain barrier in mice. The vaccine was co-developed by intramural scientists at National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), who funded the preclinical research.

 “By eliciting antibodies that bind with heroin in the blood, the vaccine aims to block the euphoria and addictive effects,” said Dr. Gary Matyas, Chief of Adjuvants and Formulations for the U.S. Military Research Program (MHRP), WRAIR. “We hope to give people a window so they can overcome their addiction.”

The study, published earlier this month in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, showed that the vaccine produced antibodies against other commonly abused opioids, including hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, oxymorphone and codeine. The vaccine appeared to dampen the impact of heroin at a high-dose, which might indicate a potential to prevent overdose.

In clinical settings it is essential that the antibodies induced by a heroin or opioid vaccine do not cross-react with the therapies for opioid abuse, such as methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone. “We found that the antibodies did not react with these compounds and, more importantly, the antibodies induced by the vaccine did not cross-react with naloxone, which is used as the overdose rescue treatment to reverse respiratory depression due to heroin and other opioid overdose,” said Dr. Kenner Rice, Chief of the Drug Design and Synthesis Section of the Chemical Biology Research Branch at The National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Although the use of opioids for pain management in addicts is of concern, researchers found that methadone, tramadol, fentanyl, sufentanil, nalbuphine and buprenorphine did not bind to the antibodies, indicating that they could be used if acute pain treatment is required for emergency use in vaccinated patients. Researchers also found that there was no binding to the non-narcotic analgesics like aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen, so these painkillers would likely remain effective.

The abuse of opioids, which include heroin and fentanyl, is a growing problem in the U.S. According to the CDC, 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. Most pharmacological treatments for opioid abuse involve opioid management therapy (OMT), but treatment access is an issue. In addition, adherence varies greatly and relapse rates can be high. To end the opioid crisis, many different types of treatments and medications will be needed to meet the needs of individuals addicted to these drugs.

“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,” said Matyas.

WRAIR researchers leveraged their expertise in novel adjuvants research to develop this experimental heroin vaccine with their partners at NIDA. The vaccine also includes a potent adjuvant to stimulate the immune system called the Army Liposome Formulation (ALF), which was also developed by researchers at WRAIR. 

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