Drug addiction vaccine: Medicine’s next big thing?

Published On: Jul 09 2012 11:31:50 AM CDT

BACKGROUND: In 2010 there were an estimated 22.6 million Americans over the age of 12 that were current or former illicit drug users within the last month. Another shocking fact, over six million children in America live with at least one parent who has a drug addiction. Addiction is a progressive problem in the United States. Since 1980, the number of deaths related to drug overdoses has risen over 540 percent. (Source: http://www.michaelshouse.com)



To feel good                          Most abused drugs produce intense feelings of pleasure. This initial sensation of euphoria is followed by other effects, which differ with the type of drug used. For example, with stimulants such as cocaine, the "high" is followed by feelings of power, self-confidence, and increased energy.


To feel better                        Some people who suffer from social anxiety, stress-related disorders, and depression begin abusing drugs in an attempt to lessen feelings of distress.


To do better                         The increasing pressure that some individuals feel to chemically enhance or improve their athletic performance can similarly play a role in initial experimentation and continued drug abuse.


Curiosity                                Adolescents are particularly vulnerable because of the strong influence of peer pressure. (Source: http://www.drugabuse.gov)


TREATMENT:Currently, the best treatment out there for drug addiction is rehab. There are a number of different rehabilitation centers for all different types of drug addictions. For nicotine addiction, a patch could help.

NEW TECHNOLOGY: Chemist Kim Janda, at Scripps Research Institute has developed  a vaccine against a heroin high and has proven its therapeutic potential in animal models. The new study demonstrates how a novel vaccine produces antibodies (a kind of immune molecule) that stop not only heroin but also other psychoactive compounds metabolized from heroin from reaching the brain to produce euphoric effects.

Using an approach termed "immunopharmacotherapy," Janda and his Scripps Research colleagues previously created vaccines that used immune molecules to blunt the effects of other abused drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and nicotine. Human clinical trials are under way for the cocaine and nicotine vaccines. The researchers linked a heroin-like hapten (a small molecule that elicits an immune response) to a generic carrier protein called keyhole limpet hemocyanin or KLH, and mixed it with Alum, an adjuvant (vaccine additive), to create a vaccine "cocktail." This mixture slowly degraded in the body, exposing the immune system to different psychoactive metabolites of heroin. (Source: http://www.scripps.edu) Bottom of Form


Kim Janda, PhD, a Chemist at the Scripps Research Institute, talks about a vaccine that could cure addiction.

Why have you been working at giving a vaccine for addiction?

Dr. Janda: What’s been done is trying to make therapeutics that are either agonists or antagonists for drug abuse and that hasn’t worked very well. Over twenty five years ago I decided that we had to try to do something different. That’s where the idea of trying to develop a vaccine came across.

How does that work?

Dr. Janda: What happens is that when the user takes the drug of abuse the immune system recognizes it as being foreign, it alerts our antibodies to attack the drug and basically block it from reaching the pleasure centers in the brain.

You never get the effects of the drug?

Dr. Janda:  There is a leakage over there, but what happens is it basically blunts the overall effect, so it’s like being like a dirty drug. The other thing that can happen with certain drugs of abuse is the immune system creates a vacuum like effect. Just like a vacuum cleaner can pull out particular things, the immune system in this case can remove the drug from the brain area and pull it back out.

Could you treat obesity like this?

Dr. Janda: This is much more controversial. What we’ve been looking at here is a peptide, it’s a gut hormone which is thought to be involved in the metabolic processes feeding behavior and we tried to make a vaccine against that. The controversy is that this is an endogens molecule found in the body so a lot people aren’t so keen on that. In essence an antagonist (drug) that is being administered for treating particular disease state are no different than the antagonistic effect one would see with an antibody blocking a substrate from it’s receptor .

Is addiction in your genes?

Dr. Janda: There is thought to be a genetic predisposition for a lot of potential abusive behaviors, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t overcome these addictive behaviors by trying to treat them with a vaccine. The vaccines aren’t going to be useful for people who don’t want to try to cut back in their lifestyle. It’s really going to be useful for those people undergoing abstinence and trying to get off the drug because you have weak moments.

Typically with drugs of abuse like cocaine you have a craving behavior, certain cues which may set off the person taking the drug. You try to alleviate that cued behavior by taking a small amount of the drug. Typically when that happens they fall back in to binge type of behavior and thus relapse. These vaccines would be very useful when they have those what we call “weak moments”.

Would you have to take the vaccine at a weak moment?

Dr. Janda: No. The vaccine would be put in place when somebody is trying to get off of the drug, undergoing abstinence.

You had a breakthrough with mice and heroin?

Dr. Janda: We developed a vaccine against heroin; heroin is a much more difficult drug problem to treat because there are multiple forms of the drug in circulation. Heroin is what’s used, but morphine is the addictive substance. Heroin breaks down through a number of different psychoactive forms and what we had to do was make a vaccine that attacks each of these psychoactive forms. Once heroin reaches the brain, the pleasure center, it forms morphine and then it doesn’t come out very easy so we had to block it in a different fashion.

What vaccines are you working on?

Dr. Janda:  We’re currently working on a heroin vaccine, a methamphetamine vaccine, cocaine vaccine and a nicotine vaccine.

Do you do this through what’s called a slime mold?

Dr. Janda: The way that the vaccines work is that cocaine or heroin, these drugs of abuse are typically not antigenic by themselves otherwise the addict would be making lots of antibodies to them. We have to basically train the immune system to recognize the drug as foreign. In technical terms we attach the drug on what’s called a carrier protein. You can think of it as a ball with little spikes coming off of it. The spikes are drug-like molecules and the ball is the carrier protein.


Do you would think that there would be support for it financially?

Dr. Janda: It’s a huge cost to society in terms of time lost on the job, how it affects relationships, family, and society in general. I think viewing this in a different light maybe it will be funded in a higher level.

Do you think you’re going to see it?

Dr. Janda: I really think the heroin vaccine is going to be very useful with regards to effect the reduction of the risk for acquisition and transmission of HIV. HIV is very prevalent now in third world countries. They don’t have methadone clinics, syringe sharing is prevalent, thus, people who are heroin addicts are at high risk for spreading HIV. I think if we can get an HIV vaccine in place it could be very effective.

How close are you?

Dr. Janda:  We’re hoping to get the heroin vaccine in clinical trials within the next year and a half if we can get some support through some people who are interested in working with us.

What are you working on right now?

Dr. Janda: We made an antibody for cocaine overdose and it works fantastic.  We set up a model where we overdose the animal, we wait three to five minutes, the animals now are going through severe premorbid behaviors, convulsive activity and then we give them an injection of monoclonal antibody and the animal makes a miraculous recovery.

Are you going to try to get that in clinical trials?

Dr. Janda: I’d love to; it’s actually human monoclonal antibody. The question is, are we going to make it in some large quantities and find someone who wants to test it out?



Cynthia Brauer

Scripps Research Institute