The heroin vaccine: Could our immune system defeat addiction?

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Scientists are developing a vaccine that could help “cure” heroin addiction.

Researchers at Walter Reed Army Institute are teaming up with a university in upstate New York that could start testing the vaccine on humans as early as next year.

For more than two decades, Dr. Stephen Thomas studied infectious diseases at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

And now, at his new home at Upstate Medical Univeristy in New York, he’s applying that past experience to a current crisis.

"We haven’t even begun to unlock the potential of the human immune system," Dr. Thomas said.

Scientists at Walter Reid have developed a heroin vaccine that develops an immune response to the drug.

"So then, if that person were to inject heroin, when it gets metabolized, the body would say, oh wait I remember that. We need to send antibodies to that substance," Dr. Thomas explained.

And that means the user would no longer experience a high when they use the drug. It could be a powerful deterrent to help people seeking recovery from addiction, but Dr. Thomas says it’s still not a silver bullet.

"It will just be one tool among many to hopefully help people enter and sustain recovery," he said.

If the vaccine is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Thomas and his team will start conducting clinical trials on humans as early as next year in upstate New York.

Dr. Thomas, who has seen first-hand how the jaws of addiction can ravage not only users, but their families and entire communities says he is optimistic the heroin vaccine could be the change that's needed.

"Even if this vaccine was successful and only 10 percent of the people who receive it enter into sustained recovery, I think that could make a huge, huge impact," he said.

Dr. Thomas says the clincial trials could be open to Massachusets residents who would be willing to relocate to New York for the duration of the trials.

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