Heroin Vaccine - Why Pharmaceutical Companies Just Say No

As a kid, I remember the dreaded doctor visit to receive immunizations. For incentive, the nurse offered dum-dum lollipops. And despite having cream soda, my all-time favorite flavor, the pain wasn’t worth a few moments of sugary bliss. Those needles hurt too damn much. I wish I’d maintained that youthful perspective.

Fast forward 20 years, and I’m using more needles than a three-armed nurse. Shots for breakfast, lunch and dinner – not tequila or vodka, just heroin. By far the worst item on my narcotic résumé. Fortunately, I sought help. Most don’t find quality addiction treatment. I was one of the lucky few.

I recently read an article about researchers uncovering a potential vaccine for heroin addiction. Then I wondered whether, at the age of 6 or 7, my parents would have chosen to immunize me from one of the most lethal drugs on Earth.

Would it matter? Knowing me, I’d simply cling to another intoxicant, desperate for relief – anything to change the way I feel. But a vaccine for heroin? At least that would preclude one substance from my abuse portfolio.

Most parents never dream their child might grow up to be a needle junkie. Even parents who suspect it often cast aside obvious signs of heroin addiction. Denial runs as strong, if not stronger, in parents with regards to a loved one’s addiction.

Perhaps this element alone would prevent many parents from vaccinating their children. Already, there are anti-vaccine movements. And that’s against traditional diseases. Addiction isn’t traditional. I suspect plenty of blowback from the anti-vaccine community if a heroin vaccine went to market.

Institute Perseveres to Test Heroin Vaccine

None of these elements will stop The Scripps Research Institute from trying to bring a viable heroin vaccine to the public. Dr. Kim Janda led the charge at The Institute and faced a tremendous challenge in crafting an effective heroin vaccine.

The human body metabolizes heroin into a litany of byproducts, most notably morphine. To block dope from doing its dirty work, Janda and his team had to create a weapon to stop heroin and its molecular friends. Previous incarnations of the vaccine failed to stop all the byproducts, thus neglecting to entirely block the high. Janda’s concoction does the job.

The vaccine works by duping the body’s immune system into reacting as if heroin is a disease, which ironically, isn’t far from the truth. Through the production of antibodies by the immune system, heroin and its byproducts cannot pass into the brain. Without passage to the brain, heroin produces no high.

As the drug continues to circulate, the body reduces its potency through its own natural enzymes. This action renders the drug null and void. It is eventually flushed from the body, and the high doesn’t happen.

For active heroin addicts who don’t want to quit, this sounds like a scene from Requiem for a Dream – a junkie’s worst nightmare. Once vaccinated, the best dope in the world wouldn’t even cause a faint buzz. I suspect some would need forced vaccinations, while others would be raging at the chance to be rid of the dope scourge.

Alcoholics Anonymous, written by Bill Wilson with the help of other recovering alcoholics, says, “Physicians who are familiar with alcoholism agree there is no such thing as making a normal drinker out of an alcoholic. Science may one day accomplish this, but it hasn't done so yet.” (More About Alcoholism, page 31). While the quote doesn’t immediately apply to this scenario, Wilson’s prophetic words appear to hint at his suspicion that science might one day conquer addiction.

I’ve heard men and women in recovery say that life is so good that they wouldn’t dream of taking a pill to cure substance abuse issues. Though I tend to agree, I’m also a fan of stacking the deck in one’s favor.

Heroin Vaccine Holds Incredible Promise

Janda and his team’s experiments on laboratory rats suggest an incredible potential to send tsunamis through the morbid ocean of heroin addiction. Of the two groups of heroin addicted rats, one vaccinated and one untreated, no vaccinated rat relapsed on heroin. Of the untreated group, all of the rats dramatically increased heroin usage after reintroduction.

Even better, vaccinated rats showed immunity to extremely high doses of heroin. So the vaccine not only removes the high and the relapse, it also erases overdose. With one injection of vaccine, death and relapse vanish.

Yet for all its promise, the vaccine isn’t a cure-all. Cravings persisted in vaccinated rats, so the vaccine functions as a complement, rather than a solution, for addiction treatment. These cravings in humans could lead to usage of another substance too.

No Love for Heroin Vaccine from Government or Big Pharm

After publication of the Scripps Research Institute’s heroin vaccine findings, the next logical step was human trials. Human trials, however, cost money – lots of money. Naturally, I would think government agencies and pharmaceutical companies would be chomping at the bit to get the project going. I’d be wrong.

Janda has had no offers to fund the research. The general consensus is there’s no money to be made. I think there’s money to be made, but more money in medications. With pharmaceutical companies pushing prescription drugs like Suboxone and Zubsolv, dollars pulse in a pill.

Suboxone currently ranks 39th in sales amongst all U.S. pharmaceuticals. In the 4th quarter of 2013, it brought over $300 million in revenue. With that kind of money at stake, it’s obvious why no one wants to fund the heroin vaccine. One dose of vaccine effectively eliminates what existing drugs already treat or try to treat. If a viable heroin vaccine went to market, Suboxone and Zubsolv sales would surely plummet.   

The news gets worse. With no funding, Janda risks losing the patent on his research. Once lost, there’s no way to stop someone stealing his work. I envision a scenario where doctors prescribe vaccine with Suboxone. No high. No cravings. And with all the research unprotected, nothing to stop big pharm from pillaging and charging more than a low-life drug dealer.

The good news is that some people are looking for creative ways to help The Scripps Research Institute. There’s a fundraiser on CrowdRise to support further research on the heroin vaccine. Go support an incredible cause. Chip in a few bucks to give junkies a chance. Lord knows we need it.

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