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Study confirms devastating effects of heroin addiction on the immune system

Close up of person cooking heroin using lighter
Image: Burlingham / Shutterstock

Did you know that heroin addiction and related overdose deaths have almost tripled in the United States since 2002? It’s a major public health issue, not least because heroin use is associated with increased risk of diseases and infections such as HIV, Hepatitis C and kidney disease. It’s clear that heroin addiction has some kind of effect on the human immune system, and that effect needs to be understood if we are to develop effective disease treatments for chronic users. But it’s been difficult to nail down thus far because users typically exhibit a range of unhealthy lifestyle choices and dabble in other drugs at the same time.

One long-standing theory is that heroin induces inflammation in the body, which is a precursor to all kinds of nasty diseases and ailments including cancer, heart disease, and even neurological disorders. This theory was borne out in tests on heroin-treated lab mice, but couldn’t be confirmed because the results of animal studies cannot necessarily be applied to humans. Now a team of researchers from the University of Rochester and associated institutions have published the results of a clinical trial on human subjects, and it turns out the inflammation theory is correct.

The trial involved 38 participants, half of whom were active heroin users plucked from a syringe exchange program who had injected heroin within the preceding 72 hours. These participants were screened for both HIV and Hepatitis C to make sure any observable effects could be fully attributed to heroin use. The other half were healthy control subjects. Blood was taken from both groups and analyzed to identify differences in a range of immunological markers.

The researchers found significant differences in the amount of protective antibodies between the groups, and an increase in certain toxins known to cause inflammation among the heroin users. They also noted increased levels of certain types of ceramides — a bioactive lipid (fat) molecule — in the heroin users. Ceramides normally contribute to the regulation of the immune system, but at higher levels they are known to drive inflammation.

With the inflammation theory confirmed, the goal for researchers is now the development of better medical treatments. The study authors suggest exploring anti-inflammatory interventions for heroin users, which “may yield broad health benefits for this growing population.” It sounds like a case of treating the symptom rather than the problem; a reactive measure that ignores the underlying issue (i.e. heroin addiction itself).

But that’s another field of research entirely, and doesn’t diminish the value of helping active users. For example, it’s known that the immune-suppressing effects of heroin can last up to two years, which means even addicts who go cold turkey and maintain their abstinence are left vulnerable to disease and infection for quite some time afterwards. If the findings of this study can lead to better treatment of heroin-induced inflammation, it will give former users the support they need to return to full health as quickly as possible.

Q: Could a reduction in associated health risks help heroin addicts kick the habit for good? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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