In its 2016 to 2020 strategic plan, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), promoted the promise of “anti-addiction vaccines aimed at eliciting antibodies that block the effects of a specific drug.”
Certainly addiction is a huge problem, with opioid addiction leading the way, taking more than 140 American lives per day, in part because lethal fentanyl is being peddled. Addiction to other drugs, including meth and, of course, alcohol, also has tragic and often deadly consequences.
The quest for an anti-addiction vaccine began in earnest when Drs. Nora D. Volkow, NIDA director, and Francis S. Collins, then-NIH director, called on scientists and industry to help develop vaccines specific against opioids in a New England Journal of Medicine Special Report in 2017. The quest for such treatments continues.
How exactly do anti-addiction vaccines work? According to Chemical and Engineering News, in the case of heroin, the vaccine “would stimulate a person’s immune system to produce antibodies that bind to heroin. The antibodies would block the drug from crossing the bloodstream into the brain, stopping the person from experiencing a high and preventing a relapse.”
In short, these antibodies “would shut down the narcotic before it could take root in the body, or in the brain,” according to The New York Times.
Limits to Behavioral Vaccines
While many medical voices salute such vaccines and hope that they become available, others are more skeptical. Some point out that, like the alcoholism treatment Antabuse (disulfiram), which causes a person to get sick if they imbibe, a vaccine requires motivation on the part of the addicted person—they have to want to stop.