A vaccine for opioid addiction could be right around the corner

Pill Man, a skeleton made from Frank Huntley's oxycontin and methadone prescription bottles, is seen...
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Since the opioid crisis began garnering attention in the ‘90s, nearly 500,000 Americans have died from opioid-related overdoses — and there’s been an uptick in overdoses during the pandemic. The good news is, researchers at Columbia University have begun clinical trials on a vaccine for opioid addiction .

The vaccine, developed at the University of Minnesota, will first be tested on just 24 humans (more preliminary research tends to be on rodents). It will create antibodies that keep oxycodone — one of the most commonly abused opioids — from breaching the barrier between the bloodstream and the brain.

Here's how it will ideally work: If a person uses after being vaccinated, they will ideally not feel the usual, addictive, euphoric effects. By preventing the drug from reaching the central nervous system, researchers say, the antibodies would essentially create an immunity to addiction. “Since the opioid does not reach the brain, the user does not get high. The vaccine also may protect against death from overdose due to respiratory depression, which occurs when oxycodone acts centrally in the brain,” according to the EurekAlert report on the trials.

Although there are pills that can treat opioid addiction, about half of people on these medications have been found to relapse after just six months, Sandra Comer, a professor of neurobiology at Columbia, said in a press release. Most of the treatment for opioid addiction now focuses on people who have already overdosed — the most famous and potent one being naloxone (commonly referred to by its brand name Narcan) — which is injected during life-or-death emergencies.

Although a combination of medication and therapy can do wonders for some people with substance use disorder, the nature of addiction is extremely tricky, which is why this vaccine will be revolutionary. Unless the physical craving for a certain drug goes away, relapsing is often a possibility. This type of vaccine, combined with existing treatments, is promising: It will ideally block the pathways to addiction versus treating the symptoms.

News of a vaccine couldn’t have come at a better time, considering that opioid-related deaths have soared during the pandemic. In 2020, the CDC recorded the highest opioid death count in the U.S. at 93,331— 20,000 more than the year before. Current data suggests that this year’s toll is likely to be even worse than last.

Today, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and oxycodone are responsible for the majority of overdoses in the U.S., according to the CDC. Many cases of opioid addiction start as a routine of prescribed (highly addictive) pain killers. Part of the reason that overdoses are skyrocketing among young people is the growing popularity of fentanyl, which is used to lace drugs like cocaine and molly. Fentanyl overdoses shot up by 38% from May 2019 to May of 2020, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Because of the enormous scope of the opioid crisis, other institutions are also working fast to develop similar vaccines — but Columbia’s is the first one to go into clinical trials in the U.S. If successful, the vaccine trials at Columbia would go on to the next phases, with more participants at each stage, per EurekAlert. And then ultimately, they’ll be available for use in clinical settings.

Ideally, people who are struggling with opioid addiction would eventually be able to take vaccines that work for several different opioids to prevent them from simply switching from one substance to another. Because addiction is still so hard to treat, these vaccines may be one of our only hopes at this stage of the opioid crisis. Hopefully, this vaccine will be the first of many that help treat addiction.