In what could be a breakthrough for addiction treatment, researchers have found it's possible to vaccinate lab rats against the effects of heroin.
The Washington Post reports that a new study by researchers at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., found that the vaccine both dulled the pain-killing function of the heroin and also prevented rats from becoming addicted to it.
A heroin vaccine has been in the works since 1974 when the first findings were published, and since then the Post reports that researchers have been trying to develop vaccines against a myriad of addicted substances including nicotine, cocaine and amphetamines -- though none have ever been licensed for commercial sale.
The study's principal investigator Dr. Kim D. Janda noted that he's never seen such a strong immune response as his team did with this new vaccine. "It is just extremely effective. The hope is that such a protective vaccine will be an effective therapeutic option for those trying to break their addiction to heroin," he said in a press release.
Janda's team have previously created vaccines for cocaine and nicotine with human clinical trials underway, using a method called "immunopharmacotherapy." But creating a heroin vaccine has proved much more difficult because heroin metabolizes into multiple substances that each produce psychoactive effects.
To remedy this, the researchers created a vaccine "cocktail" -- a mixture that slowly broke down in the body, exposing the rat's immune system to different psychoactive metabolites of heroin. While the results were promising, the study also found that their vaccine was specific only to heroin and not to the other opiod-related drugs like oxycodone, methadone, naltrexone, or naloxone.
Janda stressed the importance of this finding explaining that it indicates these vaccines could be used in combination with other heroin rehabilitation therapies.
One of the reasons the team started working on the heroin vaccine is in part because of the increase in HIV infections which is largely due to intravenous drug users and heroin addiction.
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