A vaccine developed at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) to block the high of heroin has proven effective in non-human primates. This is the first vaccine against an opioid 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,” said study leader Kim Janda, the Ely R. Callaway Jr. Professor of Chemistry and member of the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at TSRI.
The vaccine works by exposing the immune system to a part of the heroin molecule’s telltale structure. This teaches the immune system to produce antibodies against heroin and its psychoactive products. The antibodies neutralize heroin molecules, blocking them from reaching the brain to cause a feeling of euphoria.
Researchers believe that blocking the high of heroin will help eliminate the motivation for many recovering addicts to relapse into drug use. In recent years, public health officials around the world have labeled heroin use as an epidemic.
The Janda Laboratory at TSRI has been working on their heroin vaccine for over eight years; the researchers had previously tested vaccine candidates under laboratory conditions and in rodents, where the strategy proved effective for neutralizing heroin.
For the new study in rhesus monkeys, the researchers redesigned their vaccine candidate to more closely resemble heroin, with the goal of better stimulating the immune system to attack this opioid.
The researchers found that the four primates that were given three doses of this vaccine showed an effective immune response and could neutralize varying doses of heroin. This effect was most acute in the first month after vaccination but lasted for over eight months. The researchers also found no negative side effects from the vaccine.
“We believe this vaccine candidate will prove safe for human trials,” Janda said. He pointed out that the components of the vaccine have either already been approved by the FDA or have passed safety tests in previous clinical trials.
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