scientist profiles

Kim Janda

Hope in the Battle Against Drug Addiction

Heroin, meth, cocaine – it’s easy to get hooked on them, but hard to kick the habit. Hope in the form of a new way to battle addiction could be coming from the laboratory of Kim Janda, Ely R. Callaway, Jr. Professor of Chemistry, director of the Worm

Institute for Research and Medicine, and member of The Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at TSRI, who is in the vanguard of addiction science.

Worldwide, an estimated 12 to 14 million people use the illicit drug heroin. Recognizing this, Dr. Janda has developed a heroin-blocking vaccine that is ready for human clinical trials. The new vaccine stops heroin from reaching the pleasure centers in the brain, preventing a “high.” Vaccinated rats that went through withdrawal and then had access to heroin again did not seek out the drug.

Addiction researchers have been trying for decades to concoct a vaccine that neutralizes the effects of heroin, with various degrees of success. But Dr. Janda took a different approach, based on his insights into chemistry.

“The vaccine causes the body to produce antibodies against not only heroin, but importantly its psychoactive metabolites and that is the key to the success of our vaccine that others missed,” said Dr. Janda. “These antibodies circulate in the bloodstream, and neutralize any of these substances they encounter before they reach the brain. It’s like the old ’80s game Pac-Man … seek and destroy the drug.”

The vaccine isn’t intended to provide a one-stop solution for heroin addicts. It’s meant to help addicts struggling to overcome the addiction to the drug by eliminating the damaging effect of a drug relapse.

Money is the main obstacle to beginning human testing. Dr. Janda and his colleagues are looking for a philanthropist to fund the clinical trials.

Dr. Janda has also been developing other anti-drug vaccines since the 1990s, such as a cocaine vaccine now in Phase 2 clinical trials. His team’s vaccine against methamphetamine, an addiction for an estimated 25 million people worldwide, is also nearing readiness for such tests.

“We view our drug-abuse vaccines to be most useful with addicts who are prepared to quit, but have problems with abstinence,” said Dr. Janda. “Addiction is devastating to not only the addicts, but their families, friends, and society in general. It’s heartbreaking when you see the results of addiction. Our vaccines provide hope to those prepared to overcome the challenges of the addiction cycle.”

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Kim Janda, Ely R. Callaway, Jr. Professor of Chemistry, is working on vaccines that stop drugs of abuse from ever reaching the brain.