My aunt Marion is in the hospital dying of liver and kidney failure, the result of her 20-year struggle with heroin use. I was told of her imminent death the same day news broke about a vaccine against the drug. “Breakthrough heroin vaccine could render drug ‘useless’ in addicts,” one headline read. “Scientists create vaccine against heroin high,” proclaimed another.
Meanwhile, my aunt finds temporary relief in the ever more frequent administration of opiate pain medication — the very kind of drugs she used illegally.
The idea of an anti-addiction vaccine is not new. For nearly 40 years scientists have been working on vaccines against all kinds of addictions, including nicotine, marijuana and alcohol. There are even trials of vaccines to prevent obesity. None of the anti-addiction vaccines has yet received Food and Drug Administration approval, however, and most of the studies are still in their early stages.
The headlines trumpeting a heroin vaccine were based on a finding that the drug had proved to be effective on mice during trials in Mexico (a nation that could use some good news related to drugs). Scientists now plan to test the patented vaccine in humans. If all goes well, the vaccine could be available in five years — too late for my aunt but providing a glimmer of hope for the estimated 1 million heroin addicts in the United States. Perhaps.
Six years ago, when I was a doctoral student researching heroin addiction in northern New Mexico, I received an email from a scientist studying a possible vaccine against the drug’s use. The study was in rat models, but early results were promising and suggested the likelihood of a therapeutic effect for humans. Aware of the devastating heroin epidemic in New Mexico, which had the highest rate of heroin-related deaths in the Unites States, and of my work trying to understand it, the scientist wanted to offer some hope. He wrote that he could imagine a time when heroin addiction, in New Mexico and around the world, would be a thing of the past. I wanted to believe him, but I was less optimistic.