Rethinking Healthcare

New vaccine hopes for cocaine immunity

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Using a vaccine that combines the common cold virus with particles that mimic cocaine, researchers have produced a lasting immunity against cocaine high in mice.

Using a vaccine that combines the common cold virus with particles that mimic cocaine, researchers have created a lasting immunity against cocaine high in mice.

This strategy might be the first to offer cocaine addicts a relatively simple way to kick the habit.

"There is currently no FDA-approved vaccine for any drug addiction,” says lead investigator Ronald Crystal from Weill Cornell Medical College. "We can protect mice against the effects of cocaine, and we think this approach could be very promising in fighting addiction in humans."

The antibody immune response produced by the vaccine binds to, and sequesters, cocaine molecules before the drug reaches the mouse brains. This prevents any cocaine-related hyperactivity.

The treatment hooks a chemical similar in structure to cocaine onto components of the common cold virus. The immune system is alerted to an infectious agent and learns to view the cocaine as an intruder as well. Once the structure of the new intruder is recognized, natural immunity builds to cocaine particles, so any time cocaine is snorted or used in any way, antibodies to the substance are quickly produced and the cocaine molecules are engulfed by the antibodies and prevented from reaching the brain [Weill Cornell release].

"An immune response will destroy the drug before it reaches the brain's pleasure center,” Crystal says. Mice that received the vaccine before cocaine were much less hyperactive while on the drug than mice that were not vaccinated. Its effect lasted for at least 13 weeks.

The vaccine is poised to move quickly into human trials, and the researchers say that the approach could also stop addiction to other drugs, like heroin and nicotine.

But even if the vaccine passes muster in human studies, it won't be a panacea for addiction. Time explains:

Addicts could try to overcome the immunological blockade by increasing their drug intake, leading to dangerous overdoses. What's more, not every immune system reacts to every vaccine in the same way — particularly among people who are immune-compromised. Finally, killing the cocaine buzz does not do anything for the underlying psychology of addiction, and addicts are nothing if not resourceful; there are a lot of addictive substances out there, any of which could be substituted for the no-longer effective drug. Talk therapy, support groups and similar treatments are thus likely to continue to be part of any successful recovery.

The study was published in Molecular Therapy on Tuesday, and it was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health.

Image: US Drug Enforcement Administration

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure