AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump says he'll declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency. It's not clear yet how that will change how the federal government approaches the crisis. Earlier this week, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said the government's already doing things, like funding important medical research.
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TOM PRICE: One of the exciting things that they're actually working on is a vaccine for addiction, which is incredibly exciting - prospect.
CORNISH: That vaccine is at best many years away. NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris has more.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Researchers have been working on vaccines against addictive drugs including nicotine, cocaine and heroin for almost two decades. Ivan Montoya at the National Institute on Drug Abuse says the concept is simple, the same as other vaccines.
IVAN MONTOYA: Like any other vaccine, you get the vaccine, and you use your immune system to produce antibodies. In this case, the antibodies are against the drugs of abuse.
HARRIS: So a heroin vaccine, for instance, would prevent the molecules that cause euphoria from getting into the brain. The trick is getting your body to produce enough antibodies to soak up a surge of drug injected into the bloodstream.
MONTOYA: That is the biggest challenge - to get enough antibodies.
HARRIS: And Dr. Montoya's says that's apparently a major reason that previous attempts to make a nicotine vaccine for smokers failed.
MONTOYA: The second challenge is getting the person motivated to be vaccinated on a regular basis.
HARRIS: These vaccines aren't like the measles vaccine that you can get once for a lifetime of immunity. Multiple shots per year will probably be required. So the strategy will only work in people who are actively trying to recover from a drug addiction. And addicts who decide to get high could switch to some other opioid, like fentanyl, carfentanil or oxycodone.
Kim Janda, professor at the Scripps Research Institute, says he's thinking about developing a vaccine that targets both heroin and fentanyl. But his first priority is to test a heroin vaccine in people. So far, he's used federal research dollars to test his potential vaccine in rodents and monkeys.
KIM JANDA: We do have money from the NIH, but this is going to cost, to do something like this, tens of millions of dollars.
HARRIS: The National Institutes of Health typically doesn't fund that kind of research and has not made an exception for the opioid crisis. So Janda is hoping to make a deal with a pharmaceutical company. He's optimistic that human tests could begin in 18 months once he has funding, though it would take much longer to find out whether the vaccine is actually safe and effective. Janda knows that a vaccine would supplement rather than replace the current approaches to treating addiction.
JANDA: I think we need to look at some other ways of treating opioid addiction. And I think this can help.
HARRIS: Researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and at the University of Minnesota are also developing vaccines against opioids. But so far, they haven't been tried in people. Richard Harris, NPR News.
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