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Researchers are working on an opioid vaccine to help addicts avoid overdosing

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SILVER SPRING, Md. (Circa) - People take a vaccine for the flu every year to avoid getting sick, but researchers across the country are working on a vaccine to help opioid addicts avoid overdosing.

"We're in the midst of an opioid crisis, and I believe that the vaccine can help people who abuse opioids in their recovery from that abuse," said Dr. Gary Matyas, immunologist at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR).

Dr. Matyas said he and his team have been working on a vaccine for heroin since 2011.

"When you receive the vaccine your body produces something called antibodies, which circulate in the blood. So when you take heroin, these antibodies would bind to the heroin and prevent it from going into the brain," said Dr. Matyas.

And he said the vaccine could even help decrease the spread of HIV.

“Injection drug use spreads HIV. It's particularly prevalent in other countries in the world, and so one way of decreasing HIV spread is to reduce the amount of injection drug use. In addition, you can put in a HIV vaccine component,” Dr. Matyas said.

But WRAIR is not the only team of researchers working on a vaccine.

"Ultimately, I think it can save lives. A vaccine like this could offer sort of long lasting protection," said senior investigator at the Minneapolis Medical Research Foundation (MMRf) Dr. Marco Pravetoni.

Pravetoni and his team at MMRF have been working on a vaccine for the last 10 years, with their primary focus on the prescription painkiller oxycontin.

So far, he said the vaccine has worked well on mice and rats, and the next stage will be developing a formulation to test for humans.

"One of the issues is once you get out of treatment, so you’re stopping taking your medication, then you’re always at risk of relapsing. So the vaccine, being vaccinated, can prevent not necessarily the relapse, but it could prevent the overdose," Pravetoni said.

Pravetoni said the vaccine MMRF has been working on could also be combined with other medications so it does not affect other medications a patient might be using for pain management.

“If you are vaccinated against OxyContin, obviously OxyContin is not an option for you if you go to the ER, but there are other opioids that will be still effective and you can still be treated for pain," Pravetoni said.

And MMRF has been working with Avista Pharma Solutions since last year to help manufacture components of the vaccine.

“It’s very easy to get those chemists excited about their day to day work when they talk with MMRF and they hear about the exciting outcomes of the clinical and pre-clinical side of the research going on, and how this research is having an impact on patients," said Brian Heasley, manager of process chemistry at Avista Pharma Solutions.

Both Dr. Pravetoni and Dr. Matyas envision the main target of the vaccine to be those struggling with addiction.

“It prevents a person who abuses drugs from messing up. So if they lapse and they would take the drug there would be no effect. They're not back to their full scale addiction. And the other thing that it appears to do is prevent overdose. So it lessens the amount of drug that can get through in the case of very high levels of heroin going in," Dr. Matyas said.

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And both MMRF and Walter Reed have received funding from awards and grants through the National Institute on Health, and since the government has declared the opioid epidemic a national health emergency, the researchers say there has been more support from NIH and the government for research aiming to curb the crisis.

“The Food and Drug Administration regulates vaccines, so one of the things that they can do is expedite the review of therapeutics, vaccines too, that would be used to treat the opioid crisis,” Dr. Matyas said.

Developing vaccines is not new to WRAIR, and this year they are celebrating 125 years of doing so.

“WRAIR started making vaccines. It stems from Walter Reid himself working on yellow fever and how to prevent that. From mosquitoes with water. But basically that's our history, is really vaccine work and a number vaccines have come out of WRAIR in the past," Dr. Matyas said.

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