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Researchers Developing Vaccine to Fight Opioid Use Disorder |

A new University of Washington research center is working with scientists to develop a vaccine that can fight the opioid crisis. This will help stem the epidemic of deaths from overdoses over the last two decades. 

Marco Pravetoni (head of UW Medicine Center for Medication Development for Substance Use Disorders) is spearheading the development effort for the vaccine. Similar to immunization against an invading pathogen, the vaccine under development would stimulate the body’s immune system to attack and destroy opioid molecules before they can enter the brain. 

However, such a vaccine wouldn’t prevent the common cravings experienced by people with opioid addiction disorder. The treatment, however, could block opioid effects including overdose and euphoria.

This month, the new center for research opened and raised over $2 million in funding. Pravetoni hopes that he can raise the funds necessary to fund further research regarding the vaccine in development.

“What I’m hoping to achieve is pretty much every year, we’re going to start a new clinical trial,” Pravetoni told the Seattle TimesIn the early part of January

A Pandemic of Opioid Overdoses

According to provisional data from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in November, there were 100,306 Americans who died as a result of overdoses during the twelve-month period ending April 20, 2021. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of all overdose deaths were caused by synthetic opioids.

Overdose-reversal medication naloxone is known to be lifesaving in emergency situations. Treatments for opioid addiction disorder, such as methadone or buprenorphine, can be helpful. However, opioid replacement therapy drugs carry a high risk of becoming addicted. New treatments could increase the chances of success for those struggling with opioid abuse, according to Rebecca Baker, director of the National Institutes of Health’s Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative, a program that has helped fund Pravetoni’s research.

“(Existing medications) don’t work for everyone. And a lot of people don’t stay on them in the long term,” Baker said. “Would the outcomes be better if we had more options?”

The University of Washington’s opioid vaccine project is building on research published in the journal Nature1974. A rhesus monkey was trained to administer heroin and cocaine by the researchers. A vaccine that blocks the effects from heroin was given to the monkey. The monkey used cocaine as normal, but it had a much lower use of heroin after receiving the experimental vaccine.

This led to more research on the possibility of developing a vaccine against nicotine addiction. Although the initial results were promising, clinical trials proved that it was not as effective as placebo. Another vaccine to treat cocaine addiction suffered a similar fate. Neither treatment was approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Kim Janda (a Scripps Research Institute professor in chemistry, immunology, and physics) has spent many decades studying vaccines for addictive drugs. He is optimistic that there will be an effective vaccine.

“We’ve learned a lot more [about] what is possible, what’s maybe not going to be as fruitful,” Janda said, adding that vaccines may not work against all drugs of abuse. “But if there’s enough money to put behind these vaccines, and you had the infrastructure to do it, then you could move it along fairly quickly.”

Pravetoni, a Columbia University researcher and Pravetoni launched the first phase 1 clinical trial for a vaccine that can prevent opioid misuse. People who have been addicted to oxycodone are being tested for safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.

What is the cost of an Opioid vaccine?

Human drug trials, however, are costly. Pravetoni projects that the cost of bringing an opioid vaccine to market would be around $300 million. Many addiction specialists, such as Dr. Ryan Marino (an emergency medicine physician and medical toxicologist at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio), wonder if this money can be spent more effectively.

“It is true that more treatment options are generally better,” Marino told Filter. “But what doesn’t make sense to me—as someone who treats both overdose and addiction—is putting so much funding towards this when we already have an antidote for opioids, a long-acting opioid blocker and two other evidence-based treatment options for opioid use disorder that both reduce opioid use and prevent overdose.”

According to harm reduction activists, limited resources can be better spent by those who work with individuals suffering from substance abuse disorders. Jessica Blanchard is the founder and operator of Georgia’s 229 Safer Living Access mobile harm reduction program. She distributes safe sex products and naloxone from other organizations. She covers all costs associated with the operation of the program. This limits the effectiveness of the program.

“With funding, not only could I afford to buy in bulk, greatly reducing cost, but I could also give participants more supplies to share with those unable to make contact with the program,” Blanchard said. “I would pay program participants to do secondary distribution. They are experts in this field. They want to share their knowledge and help educate others. But without the ability to compensate them for their time and lived-experiential knowledge, I simply can not ask them to help.”