Researchers Are Creating New Vaccine to Target Opioid Addiction

June 14, 2019

Virus-like particle research could lead to a vaccine against opioid addiction.

Researchers are working on a promising new vaccine that could aid in the battle against opioid addiction. With the help of a $250,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, researchers from the University of New Mexico (UNM) are joining forces with a Northern Arizona University (NAU) researcher to create a vaccine that would block opioids from acting in the brain. Such a vaccine could potentially help those with opioid use disorder overcome their addiction, according to a statement from the UNM Health Sciences.

The vaccine would operate similar to HPV vaccines in that it would trigger a patient’s own immune system to create antibodies that would fight against opioids consumed by a user.

 “The main concept of this vaccine is to treat individuals who are suffering from opioid addiction,” NAU researcher Naomi Lee, PhD, told Arizona public radio station KNAU. “It's to trick your body into thinking that it's a foreign or bad molecule, and create antibodies, which is essentially what we do with our current vaccines, and then protect your body against those opioids.”

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By blocking opioids from reaching the brain blood barrier, it would prevent the expected high of a drug.

Kathryn Frietze, PhD, an assistant professor in UNM’s Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, said the vaccine will operate by attaching molecules of different opioid drugs to the protein shell of a virus-like particle ( VLP), that has its genome removed leaving only the outer protein shell.

Frietze said researchers hope that by using this VLP protein shell the particles will not be able to reproduce but will be able to trigger the immune system to attack the invader and create antibodies.

A similar process has been used before to trigger immune responses by attaching opioids to proteins like tetanus toxoid. The, challenge has been that it often requires multiple injections and isn’t a long-lasting solution, the release states.

Researchers, including Bryce Chackerian, PhD, are hopeful their new process may offer more long-lasting results and are currently testing the speed, strength, and duration of the immune response in mice. The hope is that VLPs will produce a fast, high titer, and more long-lasting antibody response to opioids.

“We believe that these are features that are likely required for effective vaccine-based treatment for opioid use disorder,” Lee, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at NAU said in a statement produced by NAU.

If the vaccine is ultimately found to be effective, Frietze says it “would not be a standalone treatment” and would likely be used along with other treatment options, but it could play a valuable role in fighting the opioid epidemic.

According to data from the CDC, opioids were involved in 47,600 deaths in 2017 and represent the largest segment of overdose deaths.