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Big Pharma Blocks Heroin Vaccine, Cites Insufficient Profits

Words by 3p Contributor
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By Jerry Nelson

Imagine an anti-smoking vaccine. Persons wanting to stop would light a cigarette and feel ... nothing. How about a vaccine against heroin addiction, one that would prevent heroin addicts from enjoying the high?

Neither are imminent, and the anti-smoking vaccine is the only one that is even in the "testing pipeline." While scientists have focused their vaccination efforts on diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria and polio, they have been slow to work on stigmatized vaccines for people in the grip of substance abuse.

Big Pharma has turned their noses up at addiction vaccines because they are apt to be the one-shot products that take in petty cash compared to the billions companies rake in with high-cholesterol pills and other products that demand continued use. Addiction is a marketer's nightmare, and that doesn't convince the pharmaceuticals to help either.

The soon-to-be-orphaned drug is not a victim of just Big Pharma's greed, but also snobbery in unexpected places: scientists and sobriety veterans.

The consensus appears to be that a vaccine for addiction is a fool's mission. There is also more than a slight disapproval of the goal itself: a judgment that would be condemned as bigoted if it was against a vaccine for AIDS or cancer.

Professor Kim Janda, director of the Wirm Insitute of Medicine, published his research into a vaccine that could stop heroin addiction in its tracks.

Janda's research will never deliver it to market. Federal and private research funding have neglected the work. "We are not anyplace close to human tests," Janda said. "No one aspires to pay for them."

The initial study was backed by Scripps Research, the Pearson Center for Addiction and the National Institute of Health. With the positive outcomes, experts felt that receiving the funding from the government — or a pharmaceutical company — would not be an obstacle.

The experts were wrong.

Notwithstanding outreach by Janda, the NIH isn't moving. Neither has any pharmaceutical corporation. Their consensus is that there is no profit in backing a heroin vaccine.

"I have talked to multiple companies," Janda said. "They don't feel there is worth for their business; they don't distinguish it from the viewpoint of the higher good."

Even Scripps Research is of little help. The institute does not provide ongoing support for research ventures other than lending a powerful name and first-rate laboratories. It still forces researchers to look for funding on their own.

Despite the need and the market, William Burfitt, director of Scripps' Office of Philanthropy, said: "To nurture any concept from lab to store can take as long as 20 years and come with many hurdles."

Donors are slow to sign checks for a plan that focuses on any illicit drug. "People plain don't want to talk about it," Burfitt said.

Bill Gates would not be shocked by the challenges Janda has faced. Gates once said that vaccines are not a priority for pharmaceutical firms: "If 20 years ago you asked how significant are vaccines to the pharmaceuticals, they would have said their business is doing well as it is." Gates then put incentives in place for Big Pharma to work with his foundation in producing vaccines for ailments that hurt developing nations.

Janda hasn't approached the Gates Foundation for support. The Gates Foundation will maintain direct costs, but not indirect costs — such as covering costs for paper pushers, custodians and paying the electricity bill.

"They won't cover the costs that we need. We can't get their money because then we can't finance the indirect expenses," Janda said.

Image credit: Flickr/Mr. Theklan

Jerry Nelson is an American writer and photojournalist and is always interested in discussing future work opportunities. Email him at jandrewnelson2@gmail.com and join the million-or-so who follow him on Twitter @ Journey_America.

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