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Addiction Vaccines Offer Hope but not a Cure

Vaccines for addictions offer hope but not a cure.The latest research regarding the search for a vaccine for addiction involves antibodies. An antibody is a protein, shaped like a Y that is produced by B-cells in the body. Also called immunoglobulin, it is part of the human immune system and works as an agent to find and destroy bacteria and viruses that invade the human body. This process is a natural function of the “humoral immune system” and is an essential component of the immune system’s ability to detect and neutralize antigens (toxins, bacteria, foreign blood cells etc.). The research methods being employed involve a process by which the immune system is artificially provoked to produce a large number of antibodies that are specifically designed to limit the “movement” of the cocaine and heroin in the blood system. When the drug is taken the antibodies combine with certain molecules associated with the drug and creates a phenomenon by which the components of the drug are enlarged to such a degree that they cannot enter into the brain through the blood system. In other words, the drug remains in the blood system where it is unable to affect those parts of the brain that produce the sense of euphoria that is sought after by the user.

The ongoing research is focused on the two particular drugs: cocaine and heroin. Researchers, by using what is called a “carrier protein”, stimulate the production of antibodies, as well as a molecule called a “hapten” that is similar to heroin or cocaine. One of the challenges is finding the right combination between the carrier protein and the hapten that will produce the desired “reaction” in the blood system. The “trial and error” methodology is time consuming but is beginning to yield results. The different chemical compounds involved with the two test drugs (heroin and cocaine) require the utilization of two different approaches to the “right combination”.

In relation to the cocaine experiments, test results in laboratory rats suggest that once the procedure is initiated, the rats who have been vaccinated have 66 percent less cocaine in their brains and 3.5 times more of the drug remaining in their blood system than the control rats (those who were not given the vaccine but had the same amount of cocaine introduced into their systems). There was also a noticeable decline in the “self-administering” aspect of the experiment by those rats that had been vaccinated.

Heroin reacts differently than cocaine once it enters the human blood system. Variations on the vaccine are necessary in order to combat the “psychoactive metabolites” associated with heroin. Multiple haptens need to be produced in order to mimic the process that heroin undergoes when it degrades once it enters the “users” system. Antibodies in the heroin vaccine need to contain the heroin as well as the metabolites it produces. As a result, the vaccine runs the risk of not only preventing the euphoria of heroin but also the pain reducing effects of the opioids involved.  Again, through experiments with laboratory rats a vaccine containing specific qualities relating to the particulars of heroin have yielded positive results.

Results and possible consequences of human testing have yet to be fully carried out. Research results indicate that the vaccines will have an effect on the ability of drug users to fully feel the euphoric effects of cocaine and heroin. While this is positive direction taken by the medical community, it must be emphasized that the vaccine approach is unlikely to be a “fix-all” for drug addiction. Being unable to experience the “high” of certain drugs due to the preventive absorption of a vaccine does not prevent the individual from switching to a different drug in order to achieve the euphoric state that they seek. Drug and alcohol addiction involves a number of variables. It is not a purely “physical” disease. The psychological reasons that individuals turn to drugs and alcohol in the first place are not addressed in the vaccine research. The “cravings” and compulsions associated with addiction still need to be dealt with in order for there to be any long lasting and meaningful recovery. Vaccines can be used in conjunction with the numerous psychological treatment programs, SMART Recovery and rehab facilities such as Searidge Foundation. But, it is unlikely that vaccines alone are going to resolve the deep-rooted conflicts and issues that are often the foundation of most destructive addictions. It is important that the medical community acknowledges this fact and pronounces it with great clarity. There is a danger of communicating an exaggerated “hope” regarding the vaccine. If a perception arises that suggests that simply by taking a vaccine for heroin or cocaine addiction an individual can be “cured”, then many may avoid the other forms of treatment that will always remain a necessary component of the process of recovery.

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National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers International Security for Traumatic Stress Studies The Canadian Positive Psychology Association The Association for Addiction Professionals