Scripps researchers hit breakthrough in anti-heroin vaccine development

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) researchers announced Tuesday a breakthrough in the development of an anti-heroin vaccine.

Researchers working at Virginia Commonwealth University said the anti-heroin vaccine has proven effective in blocking the "high" of heroin in non-human primates. The vaccine is now the first of its kind to pass this stage of preclinical testing.

"This validates our previous rodent data and positions our vaccine in a favorable light for anticipated clinical evaluation," study leader Kim Janda, the Ely R. Callaway Jr. Professor of Chemistry and member of the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at TSRI, said.

Researchers hope the vaccine will make it possible for addicts to avoid relapsing into drug use, which has grown in recent years.

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The vaccine works by exposing the subject's immune system to a signature part of the heroin molecule, which teaches the immune system to produce antibodies against the drug and its psychoactive products, according to TSRI. Those antibodies prevent the heroin molecules from reaching the brain and causing feelings of euphoria.

Researchers said primates were exposed to a vaccine that more closely resembles heroin, hoping to better stimulate the immune system. They found that four primates that were given three doses of the vaccine had an effective and lasting response to varying doses of heroin.

In some cases, the effect lasted more than eight months. Two of those primates had received the vaccination, albeit a more basic version, seven months prior to this study and showed a higher response to the vaccine. Researchers hope this could lead to successfully treating recovering addicts and producing long-term immunity.

Researchers did say that the vaccine only works against heroin and not other opioid-based painkillers or medications for treating addiction or overdose, leaving open those used in emergency medical situations.

The Janda Laboratory at TSRI has been working on the vaccine for more than eight years now. Previously tested versions of the vaccine proved successful in rodents.

TSRI said the next step will be to license the vaccine to an outside company for partnering in clinical trials. 

"We believe this vaccine candidate will prove safe for human trials," Janda said. 

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