Addiction Vaccines – Reality or Pipe Dream?

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It’s been a kind of Holy Grail in the biopharmacology community for some time. The idea that if you could create an allergic response to drugs of abuse, not only would users not gain the effects, but the same technology could be used to treat overdoses. The idea comes with some science behind it too. After all, just a few shots and you are protected from a wide range of pathogens in the community. Why not a vaccine that offers immunity to substance abuse?

The idea has been tried, more than once. In fact, various vaccines have been developed and tested, for both cocaine and nicotine. So far, the results haven’t panned out. The question experts debate is whether this whole area is a dry well and doesn’t deserve funding – funding that could be usefully applies elsewhere.

In one article we meet Chemist Kim Janda, at Scripps Research Institute. Besides working on a vaccine to fight food addiction, Dr. Janda has one for heroin that has already shown promise in animal models. His work shows how a vaccine produces antibodies against heroin (and metabolites) and blocks the “high.”

Contrast that with another report from an addiction specialist that makes the claim, “There will never be a (useful) addiction vaccine.” Dr. Peele lists various trials that showed promise, only to fail in real world applications. His case is that addiction is too powerful to be blocked with a vaccine and that the driver will either keep users doing drugs until any immunity wears off or simply get them to switch to another drug.

Who are we in the lay public to believe? Without some serious background in biochemistry and human behavior, we are left on the sidelines to see how it all shakes out. The argument is never really won and pharmaceutical companies (along with researchers in academia) have a real incentive to produce a working vaccine. However, we should always keep in mind that addiction is a disease of behavior as well. It is unlikely the need for trained therapists will ever disappear.

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