As the disease concept of addiction gains a foothold and the medical establishment increases its understanding of the mechanisms involved, new medications are on the verge of reaching the market. Increasingly the approach taken by pharmaceutical companies has been to attack the problem at its root: by creating vaccines that block the actions of certain drugs in the brain. What are the potential benefits and drawbacks inherent to this promising development?
Vaccines that would arm the immune system against addictive drugs and prevent them from getting the user intoxicated would be potent weapons against addiction. And recent developments along these lines have been promising. A research form of cocaine vaccine is set to start its first clinical trial in humans this year, and vaccines against nicotine, heroin and methamphetamine are also in development. Theoretically addiction vaccines work in a similar fashion to traditional vaccines used to treat infectious diseases like measles and tetanus. In this case, instead of targeting bacteria and viruses, the new vaccines latch onto addictive chemicals. Each of the trial vaccines includes drug molecules that have been attached to proteins from bacteria; it’s the bacterial protein that sets off the immune reaction. Once a person has been vaccinated, the next time the drug is taken antibodies will latch onto it and prevent its crossing from blood into the user’s brain. If the vaccine works as it should the user simply won’t be able to get high from their drug of choice, and eventually give up the effort.
Certain prescriptions like naltrexone (an opiate blocker which comes in pill and injection forms) and antabuse (which stops alcohol from being processed by the body) have already been used to block the effects of intoxicants on the nervous system. While these have shown promise the ability of an addict to simply stop taking the pill fundamentally undermines the long term efficiency. Vaccines change the nature of this picture with the ability to get ‘immunized’ against the substance of choice (once every couple of months) until a user’s brain chemistry can get readjusted to being clean and sober.
Of course all of this doesn’t mean the end of the treatment industry, or the extinction of the disease of addiction. Even if the coming vaccines do work with wonderful reliability (something still very much to be proved) then the core fundamentals of sobriety will be unchanged. People will still need the desire to quit using in order to seek help. And that assistance will still come in the form of support from others, those in recovery (in AA and outside the rooms) who can empathize with the struggles addicts face. Science can sometimes forget that lacking a suitable foundation and the tools to retain their sobriety, even a medical breakthrough can’t keep someone away from substances forever. With or without a vaccination the fight against addiction remains a battle fought by addicts, ‘one day at a time.’