Nanomedicine is changing the field of drug delivery by making what was previously impossible possible. Even behavioral health care stands to be revolutionized by nanomedicine, with advances that include vaccinations against addiction.
Nanoparticles in vaccines promise to allow for precise stimulation of immune responses, more effective targeting of specific tissues, lower dosages and fewer adverse effects. These advantages would allow for different vaccines to be administered to different populations, such as the elderly or chronically ill. In the right hands, these vaccines could potentially eliminate disease entirely, including the disease of addiction.
The underlying principle of an addiction vaccine is to train the body’s own immune system to attack the drug when it hits the bloodstream. Addictive substances do not stimulate an immune response by themselves, but an immune response to some of them can be produced using nanotechnology. Opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and nicotine molecules are large enough and stable enough for vaccines to be developed against them.
To create a vaccine, molecules of the drug are attached to a protein that is known to stimulate a response from the immune system via a linker molecule. When injected into the body, the immune system senses the foreign protein and produces antibodies against it. The antibodies attach themselves to the drug molecules and isolate and eliminate them before they have a chance to reach the brain.
Limitations with nanotechnology
There are some limitations and concerns about nanotechnology to make vaccines. Some of the concerns are inherent to nanotechnology, like producing an adequate immune response and avoiding unintended consequences. Nanotechnology is already used in many newer vaccines that are already in use, so such issues may be resolving through experience.
Limitations exist for addiction vaccines as well. Addiction vaccines only protect against the drug molecule for which they are designed, but not molecularly different drugs that produce the same effect. For example, heroin vaccines do not protect against prescription opioid abuse, and prescription opioid vaccines do not protect against heroin. In addition, alcohol and cannabis vaccines have not yet been discovered, because alcohol molecules are too small, and cannabis molecules are too diverse and unstable.
Kim Janda, Ph.D., at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in La Jolla, California, and his team have received research funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, but not enough to progress past the animal testing phase. Nor have they received any support whatsoever from the pharmaceutical industry. Clinical trials are necessary to sufficiently show safety and efficacy, even to be approved for expanded access (or compassionate use) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
When an opioid vaccine finally does become available, it is anticipated that those who are already addicted will still require an opioid taper, such as methadone or buprenorphine, to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms or “dope sickness.” Due to individual variations in antibody response, it is also anticipated that behavioral treatment may also be necessary to ensure sustained abstinence from drug use.
Even though the U.S. leads the world in illegal drug use, and addiction continues to ravage our nation, scientists have made a lot of progress toward an addiction vaccine. Incredulously, a simple lack of funding is preventing such vaccines from coming to market. In the meantime, new treatment modalities and detoxification medications have helped many people overcome addiction without a vaccine and allowed them to lead full, drug-free lives.
Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. The Sovereign Health Group is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at email@example.com.