Over 15,000 people in the United States died from heroin overdose between 2000 and 2016. An increase in prescription opioid abuse has led to severe addictions around the country. The solution sought by Scripps is a vaccine that creates antibodies against drugs. Could this be cure to tame the ever alarming opioid epidemic sweeping up the country?
“The heroin vaccine is one step closer to clinical evaluation and providing a possible solution,” said Candy Hwang, research associate with The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI). She studied chemistry at USC in California and has long been interested in molecular science.
Cutting Off The High
“Our bodies instinctively will fight against foreign invaders,” said Hwang. The vaccine would “train” the immune system antibodies to bind to the heroin molecules thereby blocking the drug from reaching the brain. “We already had a vaccine that was promising in rats,” added Hwang. “We have to be sure it is stable before we’re ready for human testing. The key is not to have adverse reactions,” she noted.
One way is that antibodies help our immune system. “The vaccine would stimulate the antibodies before it reaches the brain,” he said, “cutting off the ‘high’ people get from their addictions.”
In a study in the journal Molecular Pharmaceutics last month, the Institute shows how a new formulation has been proven safe in animal models. The vaccine remained stable at room temperature for 30 days or more.
“With Time, It Look’s Promising”
The first formulation of the heroin vaccine was developed in 2013 by a team led by Kim D. Janda, PhD, the Ely R. Callaway Jr. Professor of Chemistry and member of the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at TSRI. It has been shown to be effective—and safe—in both mouse and non-human primate models.
The heroin molecule does not naturally prompt an antibody response, so researchers attach it to a carrier protein that alerts the immune system to start making antibodies. Scientists also add an ingredient called an adjuvant to the vaccine, which boosts the immune response and makes the vaccine more effective.
Hwang says, “Our goal was to prepare a vaccine that could be advanced to clinical trials. As such, we were looking for the best combination of ‘hapten’ (the heroin molecule), carrier protein and adjuvant to keep the vaccine both stable for transport and storage but still efficacious.”
“With time, it looks promising,” said Hwang. “It would be such a benefit for people struggling with heroin substance use disorder.”