The first use of opium dates back to 5,000 BCE. Ancient peoples have used it as food, anesthetic, or in rituals. Since then, opium and its derivatives have been widely applied in medicine. Opioids are primarily administered for pain management, which has led to a dramatic rise in their dangerous addiction. But the dark side of “God’s own medicine” is that it is highly addictive. While some people become opioid users consciously, others do not. Many addicts started using opioids prescribed by their doctors. Then they realize that they just cannot quit. As many as one in four people who receive prescription opioids for the long term, struggle with addiction. In 2014, almost 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription opioids. Many addicts crave bigger doses and then overdose. Alarmingly, in 2015, more than 15,000 people died from overdoses involving prescription opioids. A class of potential opioid vaccines may prove to be the ultimate solution to this.
This emerging problem led to the idea of creating an anti-opioid vaccine. A vaccine teaches the body’s immune cells to recognize certain molecules as a threat and to produce antibodies that interfere with the target molecule.
As a result of numerous experiments, Dr. Kim Janda of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA and his team succeeded in creating two anti-opioid vaccines. These vaccines proved effective at teaching the body to interfere and attack the opioid molecules before they reached the brain preventing the euphoric effects and the subsequent addiction. This treatment would differ from current opioid treatment options which must alter brain chemistry to be effective. To date, all the experiments were performed on mice. Scientists detected the effects of the vaccine by measuring the reaction to heat applied to the mice’s tails while they were on the relevant opioid.
Vaccination also helped protect the mice against overdoses. The researchers injected the mice with dangerously high doses of hydrocodone. About one-quarter of the non-vaccinated mice survived, while almost two-thirds of the vaccinated mice survived the overdose. For oxycodone overdoses, the survival rates were 14% and 37% respectively.
If the effects on humans are similar, the vaccines would last long enough to help treat prescription opioid addiction. The effect may also be short enough to allow treatment with the opioid, if necessary, in the future.
If Dr. Janda and his team are able to produce the same vaccine results in people, opioid users will have another tool to help them break their addiction.