Newswise — According to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, each day 580 people initiate heroin use. To address this major epidemic, some scientists are pursuing a novel approach: developing vaccines to counter heroin addiction.

In some ways, the heroin vaccines work like traditional vaccines for infectious diseases—priming the immune system to attack foreign molecules. But as recently noted by Science News, instead of targeting viruses, these vaccines zero in on addictive chemicals, training the immune system to usher the drugs out of the body before they can reach the brain. By aiming to make patients immune to the effects of heroin, vaccines could offer an alternative for patients who want to avoid the pitfalls—including side effects and lack of access—that are associated with existing medications for heroin addiction.

Currently, three medications, sold under various brand names, are available to help people with heroin or opioid addiction get clean and stay drug-free, Science News reports. But some addicted patients experience unwanted side effects from the daily or monthly treatments and stop using them, while others lack access to treatments due to high costs and strict federal limits on dispensing the drugs. Vaccines could offer an alternative for patients who want or need to stay clean.

Roger Crystal, M.D. has a keen interest in the potential of vaccines for heroin addiction. As the Chief Executive Officer of Opiant Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a specialty pharmaceutical company, Crystal’s enthusiasm for this area of research stems in part from Opiant’s existing efforts: to develop opioid antagonist nasal sprays and other innovative formulations for the treatment of substance abuse disorders, addictive disorders and eating disorders. The company successfully created NARCAN® Nasal Spray, which is being marketed by its partner and licensee, Adapt Pharma. Indicated for the emergency reversal of opioid overdose, this nasal spray—in contrast to the more widely known injectable form—offers the ease of use for bystanders, avoidance of needles and the potential to be co-prescribed alongside opioid painkillers such as oxycodone.

One potential advantage of an opioid antagonist nasal spray, beyond its use in emergencies, according to Crystal, is its potential to disrupt the activation of the brain’s reward circuitry, and reduce the frequency of unwanted activity or eliminating it altogether, for the diseases whose treatments Opiant is now focused on developing. The company has planned a series of clinical studies to begin in late 2016 and going forward.

The progress currently being made in the area of heroin vaccines—as well as the innovations being pursued by Crystal at Opiant Pharmaceuticals—hold out the promise of a new era of treatment for those facing the challenges of addiction.