An experimental vaccine could help fight the opioid epidemic

Tackling the opioid crisis requires a change in strategies and the way we think about addiction, says Professor Sandra Comer from Columbia University.

At least 100,000 people died from a drug overdose between May 2020 and May 2021 – a 22% increase over the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the last two decades, nearly 1 million Americans have died from drug overdoses, of which more than 70% involved opioids.

“One of the mistakes people make when they think of drug users is, ‘Oh, it’s someone’s choice to have this disorder.’ That is not true, “she said.” It is a medical disease and we need to treat it. ”

Medically assisted treatments can be effective but have a relapse rate of around 50%, Comer said.

“That’s why we continue to look for new medicine,” Comer said.

This search led to a new type of treatment – a vaccine that targets the chemical composition of oxycodone. Comer and her research colleague, Marco Pravetoni, are testing the vaccine on volunteers with substance abuse.

“The idea behind the vaccine is that after a while, the body will produce an antibody against that particular chemical structure,” Comer said. “If someone uses oxycodone, the antibody will bind to that molecule and it will not allow it to enter the brain.”

This means that the drug would never get to the brain to stimulate the pleasure center.

Comer added that the vaccine provides a safety net for people who relapse despite currently available treatments.

“If they relapse, the vaccine will hopefully still provide some degree of protection, at least against overdose. And perhaps an opportunity for us to re-involve them in treatment,” she said.

The vaccine could be used in conjunction with other drugs that treat substance abuse, Comer said.

If that works, researchers hope to target other opioids, including fentanyl and heroin.

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