Countless people whose lives have been affected by addiction have wished for a magic pill that would permanently erase the craving for addictive substances. Although such a pill sounds like the stuff of fantasy, a team of researchers at Scripps Research Institute in California are focused on coming up with an additional vaccine that would prevent addicts from enjoying the sensations that causes them to abuse drugs or alcohol.
Scientists in the past have developed vaccines for deadly diseases like small pox, polio and measles. Because scientists now believe that addiction causes chemical changes in the brain, increased attention is being paid to developing drugs that block these changes. Anti-opiate medication like methadone and Suboxone that are currently used to treat heroin addiction cannot be described as vaccines because they replace the heroin high rather than blocking the drug’s effects. Addiction vaccines would work in a way similar to other vaccines and cause the immune system to produce antibodies that would circumvent the effects of an addictive substance and remove the possibility of it causing changes in the body or brain.
Dr. Kim D. Janda, who heads up a Scripps team of 25 researchers, has made the search for an addiction vaccine his life’s work. The team recently announced that they had successfully produced a test vaccine that blunts the effects of heroin in laboratory rats. Rodents who were given the test vaccine no longer experienced the full force of heroin and stopped helping themselves to heroin doses. The results of this test are promising but are inconclusive until tests are run with human subjects.
Several of the vaccines that developed by Dr. Janda’s team have looked promising following tests on laboratory animals but have failed when administered to human test subjects. The team recently experienced a setback when a prototype tobacco vaccine was found to be ineffective on human test subjects. The FDA will not approve any addiction vaccine until tests on humans are successful.
According to an interview in the New York Times, the demand for an addiction vaccine is so high that Dr. Janda currently receives weekly unsolicited emails from addicts requesting to be included in his clinical trials. He frequently has to turn away parents who bring their children to his office in the hope of finding a cure for their addiction.
Despite the setbacks experienced by Dr. Janda and his team, many scientists believe that he or another researcher will eventually succeed in developing an addiction vaccine. Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has described Dr. Janda as a visionary who foresaw the current epidemic of drug abuse decades earlier than other experts in the field. Dr. Volkow’s faith in Dr. Janda is so great that the Institute is providing a portion of the funding for his research.
Other scientists who are actively pursuing the discovery of an addition vaccine include Dr. S. Michael Owens at the University of Arkansas, who is studying methamphetamine addiction, and Dr. Thomas Kosten at Baylor College of Medicine, who has had initial success with a vaccination for cocaine addiction.