A Dream within Reach? Developing a Vaccine for Opioid Addiction

Written by: Nechama Reis
Last Updated: Mar 22, 2022

In case you haven’t noticed, vaccines have been quite the topic of conversation lately. Everyone and their mother has been discussing the importance of the Covid-19 vaccine.

It seems like every discussion starts with someone asking you, “Are you a Pfizer guy, Moderna person, or a Johnson and Johnson believer. ” We have learned about MRNA, clinical trials and how they work, and a million other details that we have never thought about until now. Coronavirus vaccines dominate the discourse, rightfully so. But what if there was a vaccine solution to the other ongoing pandemic in this country, that too often gets overlooked. What if we figured out a way to vaccinate against drug and alcohol addiction?

Researchers at the University of Washington, in partnership with Columbia University in New York City are determined to find out if they can make a drug addiction vaccine a reality. Watch here for a news clip of their ongoing efforts:

Substance use disorder is a rising concern in America, with 8.1 million Americans suffering from the disease. The DSM-5 defines a substance use disorder as drug abuse and drug-seeking behavior despite the adverse effects on one’s life. Opioids are currently the most abused class of drugs, making up 24.7% of those with substance use disorders. A huge portion of that is Fentanyl addiction, currently the number one killer in the US of adults aged 18 to 45. Yes, even more than Covid-19. While addiction numbers keep rising, scientists search for answers to the growing opioid epidemic.   

Emerging Solutions to an Old Crisis

A recent switch in viewing drug addiction has helped scientists innovate new ideas and ways to treat substance use disorders. The common notion used to be that abusing drugs was based entirely on environmental conditions. However, research has discovered that biological markers can also play a crucial role in determining drug misuse. This discovery has led scientists to explore medical treatments for substance use disorders.

 “One of the mistakes that people make when they think about drug users, ‘Oh, it’s somebody’s choice to have this disorder.” researcher Sandra Comer noted in her comments to CBS. “That’s not true,” she said. “It’s a medical disease, and we need to treat it.” Comer, a professor at Columbia University, is collaborating with Marco Pravetoni of the University of Washington, on developing a vaccine that would end the opioid crisis.

NIH HEAL Initiative

There are currently three FDA-approved medications for opioid use disorder, with varying degrees of success. However, the rate of relapse amongst the addiction community is concerning, and there is a need for other solutions. The NIH HEAL (Heal End Addiction Long Term) initiative has worked on a vaccine to treat opioid use disorder.  A vaccine would provide another solution for those with the disease.  The advantages of a vaccine over medication include needing less medical supervision and zero abuse potential disorders.

Vaccines For Addictions

One of the most significant discoveries of modern medicine has been vaccines. Over the last century since their creation, vaccines have prevented some of the most common fatal diseases from wiping out families and cities. A new frontier of research is using vaccines to treat diseases once they are already present. Using this theory, researchers have attempted to create a vaccine to treat those with opioid use disorder.

How Would a Vaccine for Opioid Addiction Work?

Vaccines prevent a foreign substance or antigen from reaching the spinal cord or brain where its effect occurs. For opioid molecules to pass through the brain, they first must pass the blood-brain barrier. Since opioid molecules are so small, they usually can pass through the wall to the brain. An opioid vaccine would teach the body to develop antibodies against the target opioid. Then, when the substance enters the body, the antibodies created from the vaccine would attach to the opioid molecules. This causes the opioid molecules to be too large to pass through the barrier to the brain. The result would be no rewarding feeling from the opioids. This would in effect end the vicious cycle of opioid addiction as we know it.

When Will a Vaccine Be Available?

Under the HEAL initiative, Pravetoni and Comer are running the first opioid vaccine trial on humans. They have begun the first testing stage; to see whether the vaccine is safe and if participants develop antibodies. They are also hoping to see a decrease in the effects of opioids on those who took the vaccine. Researchers are also studying how long the results of the vaccine can last.  If the vaccine works, there should be a marked decline in the feeling of pleasure from opioids. It will take a while before the vaccine is on the market as an effective treatment.

The Need for an Opioid Addiction Vaccine

Those suffering from substance use disorder have gone through the challenge of trying to recover. Many have gone through treatment multiple times in their life and are searching for a treatment that sticks. A vaccine could be that hope they have been waiting for. It is a solution that works and allows them to move on from a life of addiction.

Until then, the best option for beating addiction remains through  drug and alcohol detox and rehab. Here at Avenues, We are rooting hard for the success of this vaccine, until then, however, we are committed to offering the very best in drug and alcohol detox and rehab here at Avenues. Addiction recovery is possible, and we will do everything we possibly can to help you or your loved one get there.


What is DSM 5 Substance Use Disorder? (disorders.org)

NCDAS: Substance Abuse and Addiction Statistics [2022] (drugabusestatistics.org)

Drug Overdose Deaths in the U.S. Top 100,000 Annually (cdc.gov)

Drug addiction (substance use disorder) – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic

To fight the opioid crisis, researchers take a new shot at developing a vaccine against addictive drugs (medicalxpress.com)

A Shot Against Opioids | NIH HEAL Initiative

An experimental vaccine could help fight the opioid epidemic – CBS News.

Science & Tech Spotlight: Opioid Vaccines | U.S. GAO

Nechama is a content writer who enjoys combining research with creative writing. She has graduated from Excelsior College with a BS in Psychology. She is an avid reader with a passion for writing professionally and personally on topics of mental health and psychology.

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