NU researchers work on meth vaccine

Imagine a simple shot that could help prevent recovering meth addicts from relapsing. That may not be far away, thanks to a team of University of Nebraska scientists knee-deep in abusive drug research.

The five-person team next week will begin testing a vaccine that could inhibit methamphetamine’s highly addictive properties, project leader Sam Sanderson said Monday.

The researchers’ ultimate goal: a shot or patch that would release antibodies in a person’s body capable of stopping meth from entering the brain, where the drug becomes addictive.

That could be immensely helpful to recovering addicts, many of whom face relapse despite costly, lengthy recovery programs.

“There’s a tremendous need for (a meth vaccine), particularly in a state like Nebraska, where we’re just getting clobbered by it,” said Sanderson, an associate professor in the School of Allied Health Professions at the medical center in Omaha.

“We just thought, ‘You know, you oughtta be able to make a vaccine for the darndest things.’”

No one else is working on such a vaccine, team members say.

And they believe they’re making major headway: The team already has developed a vaccine that blunts behavior in rats associated with nicotine addiction, so they’re hopeful a meth-specific vaccine will generate similar success.

That, in turn, could mean highly competitive National Institutes of Health grant money for the researchers. Currently, their meth work is funded by private dollars.

“If we can pull this off with nicotine, there’s no reason on the planet we can’t do this with methamphetamine,” Sanderson said.

How the vaccine would work: An injection would release antibodies into the body that would essentially “teach” the immune system to recognize meth molecules as foreign invaders.

Then, if meth is ingested, the antibodies would bind to the foreign molecules, making them too big to enter the brain, where chemical addiction is formed.

The possible impact of a vaccine like this is significant, said Rick Bevins, a psychology professor at UNL who’s part of the team.

As it is, there’s not enough treatment available for relapse victims, Bevins said. This vaccine could be part of a broad treatment program for meth abusers and could help stack the odds of recovery in their favor, he said.

Furthermore, Bevins expects meth’s prevalence across the county to grow.

“It’s going to be everybody’s problem soon,” he said. Compared to nicotine, “this, in my mind, is the bigger health problem.”

The research is not without ethical questions.

For example, if a vaccine is developed, should it only be available to meth abusers? Or could worried parents vaccinate their children in high school before addiction strikes?

And for those convicted of making meth, can courts require the vaccine?

“If you were to ask me if there are pitfalls, I would say yes, there are pitfalls,” said John Roll, director of the Washington Institute for Mental Illness Research and Training in Spokane, Wash.

“The ethical stuff really comes in with the prevention issue,” said Roll, a longtime friend of Bevins who’s done research on meth abuse and treatment.

Still, Roll called the NU team’s research “groundbreaking.”

“I think it’s very promising,” he said. “(A vaccine) could be an important part of treatment.”

Beyond meth abuse treatment, Sanderson has big dreams.

He’s close to vaccinating against nicotine addiction. He’s working to vaccinate against meth addiction.

So why not heroin or cocaine? Why not environmental toxins like lead and mercury? And why not dangerous chemicals that bioterrorists could use against troops abroad or Americans at home?

“You could make a bird-flu vaccine. You could make an anthrax vaccine. You could make a botulism vaccine,” Sanderson said. “You could do so many things.”

He paused and laughed.

“I’m working like a horse.”