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Heroin vaccine to be tested in Syracuse

Ellen Abbott
WRVO Public Media
Mark Schmitt, PhD (left), Dr. Stephen Thomas and Dr. Timothy Endy at SUNY Upstate Medical University.

Researchers at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse have joined those at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Health in advancing a novel approach to treating heroin addicts. They hope a heroin vaccine can be a factor in the fight against opioid addiction.

In studies on mice, the experimental vaccine essentially creates antibodies that prevent the effects of heroin from reaching the brain, so there is no high. Since it’s a vaccine, it could last for several weeks.  And that would make it valuable as part of a treatment strategy for someone addicted to heroin, according to co-investigator Timothy Endy from Upstate.

"This is not a cure for addiction,” Endy said. “This is actually one tool in the tool box to help people into recovery and treating their addiction disorder. I think we’re at the beginning of trying to figure out how to best treat these folks." 

Researchers at Walter Reed have been working on this vaccine for a while. A $3.7 million federal grant will fund the next step; production of the vaccine and preliminary safety testing. The final step would be a clinical trial with human volunteers at Upstate, led by Dr. Stephen Thomas. He said it’s not clear yet who would be a good candidate for this treatment.

"One potential scenario would be, somebody who has a substance abuse disorder who has entered into recovery, and made a choice to enter into recovery, they could get this vaccine,” Thomas said.

Researchers said the more treatment options available to individuals with addiction disorders, the greater the chance is of successfully fighting the nation's opioid crisis. This is part of a push by the federal government to find ways to fight an opioid epidemic that has already killed tens of thousands of Americans in recent years.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.