Opioid Vaccine: Can A Vaccine Cure Addiction?

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on May 27, 2022

Drug addiction in the United States has reached epidemic levels. However, new research points to a vaccine that could prove to be a major breakthrough in the opioid crisis.

Vaccine For Opioid Addiction

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the one-year period between 2020 and 2021, over 100,000 Americans died from a drug overdose. Of these, nearly 70,000 were due to opioid overdose.

While current therapies like medication-assisted treatment (MAT) have proven helpful in preventing overdose deaths, there is still a 50 percent relapse rate six months after treatment.

Researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York are currently testing an experimental vaccine for the treatment of opioid use disorder.

Here you’ll find information on:

  • how the experimental opioid vaccine works
  • when the vaccine will be available if approved
  • why you might choose the opioid vaccine over other treatment options
  • the potential side effects of the vaccine
  • other therapies used to treat opioid use disorder

How Will The Opioid Vaccine Work?

Vaccines are an important weapon for public health in the fight against various diseases. Recent research shows preventative vaccines may also be able to treat people with pre-existing health conditions, including substance use disorders.

All vaccines work in a similar manner — through teaching the body’s immune system to create antibodies that can recognize and destroy antigens, like the poliovirus or the seasonal flu.

An opioid vaccine would be designed to teach the body to recognize an opioid molecule in the body, and the resulting immune response would prevent the opioids from entering the brain.

Opioid molecules can typically cross the blood-brain barrier because they are very small, but an opioid molecule stuck to an antibody would be too big to get through. This would result in there being no pleasure response from using opioids.

When Will The Opioid Vaccine Be Available?

Professor Sandra Comer of Columbia University and Marco Pravetoni, associate professor at Minnesota Medical School, have already tested their oxycodone vaccine on human volunteers.

Over the course of two months, participants were given a dose of oxycodone followed by a placebo vaccine or a real vaccine to see how it affects the pleasure response.

If studies continue to show promise, a vaccine that targets oxycodone, fentanyl, and heroin drug use could enter FDA clinical trials within the next five years.

Why Choose The Opioid Vaccine Over Other Treatments?

If the opioid vaccine is available for public use, it would likely be combined with other medications used for opioid use disorder, as it would not interfere with prescription medications such as naltrexone.

You would not necessarily have to choose between the vaccine or traditional treatment, but use it as a supplement to ensure a better chance at long-term recovery.

What Are The Potential Side Effects And Risks?

The side effects of an opioid vaccine are not fully known, but there are concerns among experts about the risk of denying adequate pain control for people vaccinated against oxycodone.

For example, if a person were in a car accident, they may not be responsive to high doses of prescription opioids used to treat their pain due to their opioid vaccine.

This issue could be mitigated through the use of other pain management methods, but this could also prove troublesome as people could simply use other substances not protected by the vaccine.

Other Options For Opioid Use Disorder Treatment

Currently, there are several approved methods for treating opioid use disorder. These evidence-based approaches to care have been proven over time to promote the best outcomes for people who need help.

Treatment options for an opioid addiction may include:

  • buprenorphine, methadone, or naltrexone maintenance
  • dual diagnosis care for co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders
  • crisis interventions
  • medical detoxification
  • behavioral therapies
  • family, group, and individual counseling

Until opioid vaccine development becomes available for public use, the list of services above will provide the best chance at achieving long-term sobriety from opioid addiction.

Recover From Substance Abuse

The opioid epidemic has been ongoing, but help is available for you or your loved one. There are several inpatient and outpatient treatments for opioid use that have proven effective.

For additional information about opioid abuse treatment, contact our helpline today. Our team may also assist you in finding a treatment program or detox clinic in your area.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.

These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on May 27, 2022

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