Dr. Gary Matyas' lab at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Credit MHRP

A new vaccine may be effective in combating the growing opioid problem plaguing the nation.

Researchers from the U.S. Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) have found that an experimental heroin vaccine induced antibodies that prevented the drug from crossing the blood-brain barrier in mice and rats.

“By eliciting antibodies that bind with heroin in the blood, the vaccine aims to block the euphoria and addictive effects,” Gary Matyas, Ph.D., chief of Adjuvants and Formulations for the U.S. Military Research Program (MHRP), WRAIR, said in a statement. “We hope to give people a window so they can overcome their addiction.”

The vaccine produced antibodies against other commonly misused opioids, including hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, oxymorphone and codeine. The vaccine dampens the impact of heroin at a high-dose, indicating that it may have the potential to prevent overdoses.

In a clinical setting, the antibodies induced by a heroin or opioid vaccine do not cross-react with the therapies for opioid misuse, including methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone.

However, the antibodies did not react with those compounds and the antibodies induced by the vaccine did not cross-react with naloxone, commonly used as the overdose rescue treatment to reverse respiratory depression due to heroin and other opioid overdose.

“Although we are still in the early phase, this study suggests that vaccination can be used together with standard therapies to prevent the withdrawal and craving symptoms associated with opioid withdrawal,” Matyas said.

The misuse of opioids including heroin and fentanyl, is an increasing problem in the U.S. According to the CDC, 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. Most pharmacological treatments for opioid misuse involve opioid management therapy (OMT), but treatment access is an issue. Adherence varies greatly with relapse rates being high.

The vaccine was co-developed at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health, which funded the preclinical research.