LA JOLLA, CA Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have reported successful preclinical tests of a new vaccine against heroin. The vaccine targets heroin and its psychoactive breakdown products in the bloodstream, preventing them from reaching the brain.
"Heroin-addicted rats deprived of the drug will normally resume using it compulsively if they regain access, but our vaccine stops this from happening," said George F. Koob, who chairs TSRI's addiction research group, the Committee on the Neurobiology of Addictive Disorders. If the vaccine works as well in human trials, it could become a standard part of therapy for heroin addiction, which is estimated to affect more than 10 million people worldwide.
Koob, TSRI Professor Kim Janda, and their laboratories led the study, which appears during the week of May 6, 2013 in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The heroin vaccine is one of several vaccines against drugs of abuse that have been developed since the 1990s by scientists at TSRI and other institutions.
The structures of common drug molecules are too small and simple to stimulate the immune system sufficiently on their own, but vaccine designers have overcome this hurdle by affixing key fragments of drug molecules to larger, more immune-provoking carrier proteins. Vaccines against cocaine and nicotine that have been designed this way are now in clinical testing, and a methamphetamine vaccine is nearing readiness for such tests.
Designing an effective vaccine against heroin has been particularly challenging because the drug breaks down rapidly in the bloodstream after injection. "Heroin is metabolized very quickly to another compound called 6-acetylmorphine, which crosses into the brain and accounts for much of heroin's effect," said Janda, who is TSRI's Ely R. Callaway, Jr. Chair in Chemistry and whose laboratory initially
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Scripps Research Institute