Vaccinating Against Addiction

John Timmer reviews new research that could change the way we treat heroin addicts:

Antibodies that latch on to drugs could keep them away from their sites of action in the brain, blocking any rewarding high. So far, the results haven’t been as promising as the idea, but a new vaccine against heroin appears to do better specifically because it’s designed to work with how the drug is processed by the body. …

The most intriguing test, however, involved rats that had been allowed to self-dose with heroin, which was accompanied by a blinking light.

After an extended withdrawal, the rats would go right back to self-medicating if they were given a single dose of heroin or shown the blinking light. Once they were treated to raise the dynamic antibodies, however, the dose of heroin would no longer set off a bout of drug-taking (though the blinking light still would). The antibodies appeared to block the drug efficiently enough that it no longer registered in the brains of these rats.

This isn’t an easy or simple solution. Vaccinating the rats required three doses within a month, and the rats still could get a hit off the drug—it just took a lot more of it. In human societies, addicts requiring a lot more of a drug can be a recipe for serious problems. But for those enrolled in supervised treatment programs, it could make a significant difference in keeping a momentary lapse from becoming a full relapse.