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SUNY Upstate Helping to Develop and Test Heroin Vaccine

Scott Willis

SUNY Upstate Medical University has joined the process of developing a vaccine that could help address the ongoing heroin epidemic.  Scientists here are working in conjunction with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research using a $3.7 million grant to conduct clinical trials. 

Principal investigator and Chief of Upstate’s Infectious Diseases Division Dr. Stephen Thomas says they hope to begin human testing soon if animal testing proves successful.

"What would happen is someone would inject heroin, it gets metabolzed in the body, the immune system would recognize that metabolite attached to it,  and it would not be able to pass through blood brain barrier, and so they would not get the psychoactive effects of heroin."

Dr. Timothy Endy is Chair of Upstate’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology.  He believes it’s the first vaccine against a drug.

"It's a very novel approach to tricking our body into developing an antibody against a drug, basically.  The vaccine is comparable to other drugs on the market for medical assisted therapy for substance abuse disorer, like Suboxone and Vivitrol, which is a chemical way of blocking the heroin.  Instead of a drug to do that, this is a vaccine to do that."

Credit Scott Willis / WAER News
L to R, Mark Schmitt, Interim VP for Research at SUNY Upstate; Dr. Thomas, and Dr. Timothy Endy, Chair of Upstate's Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Endy is also an infectious disease researcher and is co-investigator with Dr. Thomas on the heroin vaccine.

Endy’s son struggled with heroin addiction, and overdosed three times.  He says he’s been in recovery for over two years and is doing well.  Endy is quick to say the vaccine is not a cure for, and does not prevent addiction.  Instead, Dr. Thomas says it could be another tool to help with treatment by preventing highs and overdoses.

"If you were to take the entire population of people with substance abuse disorders, they are going respond differently to different modes of treatment.  Some will need pharmacologic therapy plus counseling; some will be fine with counseling or group therapy.    But there is a significant group, and we' see them in the hospital, that have tried multiple times to get into remission, and it hasn't worked.  

Thomas says the Food and Drug Administration will ultimately decide what part of the population would be best served by the vaccine after human clinical trials are complete, probably in a few years.   The vaccine is designed only to work with heroin, and not other opiates.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at