UW researchers say a vaccine against addiction is possible

Experts believe that a vaccine could change the way we fight the opioid epidemic.

SEATTLE – What if there was a vaccine that prevented addiction, just like the flu? Researchers at the University of Washington are investigating this possibility.

Addiction is seen as a disease by medical professionals everywhere. Promising new research should now go one step further.

In 2020 there were 70,000 overdose deaths in America, the vast majority of them from opioids. In Washington state alone, there were more than 1,800 deaths. That is 33% more than in the previous year. In Seattle, almost ten times as much fentanyl was seized in 2021 compared to 2020.

“If we are to treat addiction like any other disease, we should treat it like any other disease,” said Marco Pravetoni, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington.

Pravetoni is part of a project aimed at developing a vaccine to stop the addiction.

“Patients will develop antibodies that are selective for the target drug. For example, we can immunize against fentanyl, ”says Pravetoni.

The vaccine would effectively prevent the drug from getting into the brain.

The ability to immunize against opioids like we do against COVID-19 would lead to fewer accidental overdoses, especially given the explosion of deadly fentanyl pills masquerading as oxycontin on the streets.

“Something like a vaccine would provide an expanded safety net,” said Pravetoni.

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John Stephens is the former CEO of the groundbreaking Didgwalic Wellness Center on the Swinomish Indian Reservation.

Since opening in 2017, the center has more than doubled its capacity to 500 patients, which is still not meeting the needs of the community.

According to Stephens, many people find it difficult to get treatment.

Many more simply refuse to leave, so a vaccine could be a game changer.

“A vaccine could fill a huge niche in the public health epidemic and would be a very, very good thing for a lot of people,” said Stephens. “My thumbs are crossed.”

UW is now partnering with New York’s Columbia University on clinical trials in the hopes that an opioid vaccine like the COVID-19 vaccine could be accelerated.

However, a vaccine is not a quick fix.

Even if it’s fast-tracked, it would likely take at least 5 years to get to market.

Still, Pravetoni is hopeful.

“Ten years ago I never thought I would take part in a clinical trial,” said Pravetoni. “If that is possible, anything is possible.”

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