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Imagine a vaccine for smokers. Chain smokers would take an immunization against nicotine addiction and the next time they lit up, they would feel nothing

Scientists Report Immunizations to Treat Addiction Tantalizingly Close

Or imagine a vaccine against methamphetamines. Crack addicts would take a shot of a vaccine instead of meth and feel nothing, no high, no paranoia, no euphoria, no crash.

For nearly three decades, Dr. Kim D. Janda, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, has made the hunt for a simple vaccination to stop addiction his life's work. Dr. Janda envisions treatments that would work the same way as vaccinations against infectious disease. An injection would expose the immune system to small amounts of an addictive drug, and then make antibodies that would destroy it.

And because doctors now regard drug addiction as the result of physical changes in the brain, the medical establishment has renewed interest in an immunization-based approach to one of America's leading health problems. The hope is that meth addiction and cocaine addiction will go the way of measles and mumps and become reminders of another era in public health history.

Dr. Janda's Cocaine Immunization

In January of 2011, Kim Janda and his colleagues published a paper in the medical journal Molecular Therapy about a vaccination that can stop cocaine abuse cold—at least in mice. The molecule in cocaine that acts on the brain is so small that the immune system does not recognize it. Janda and his colleagues engineered an adenovirus (the kind of virus that causes sore throats and sinus infections) so that it had cocaine grafted onto its DNA.

The doctors then gave the virus to mice. Their immune systems learned to attack cocaine the same way they attacked adenoviruses, destroying cocaine before it could reach the brain. This laboratory trial confirms the work of other researchers also searching for a cure for cocaine addiction.

The Importance of Treating Cocaine Addiction

There is no doubt that cocaine abuse is a serious health problem. Cocaine is extremely addictive. Once cocaine gets into the bloodstream, it easily passes the protective blood-brain barrier and begins to accumulate in the brain. It builds up in the reward centers of the brain such as the nucleus acumbens. It locks to receptors in brain tissues to keep them from recycling the reward chemical dopamine, so that there is a greater and greater sense of satisfaction, much like that which is derived from sex, winning at gambling, or thrill-seeking activities.

The rush of pleasure starts just a few seconds after cocaine enters the brain, and lasts for several minutes. Most users say they have never experienced a more pleasurable feeling than that first hit of cocaine. Then users want more—and nearly 6.4 million people in the United States alone are addicted to cocaine for the high they have come to depend on. Many lose their money, their possessions, their jobs, and their families constantly seeking the euphoric high that only lasts a few minutes.

There is no step-down treatment like methadone for heroin to help people come off cocaine. And even Dr. Janda's treatment does not make recovery painless. However, an immunization to cocaine after recovery might help addicts in recovery keep from making a slip back into addiction.

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  • Hicks MJ, De BP, Rosenberg JB, Davidson JT, Moreno AY, Janda KD, Wee S, Koob GF, Hackett NR, Kaminsky SM, Worgall S, Toth M, Mezey JG, Crystal RG. Cocaine analog coupled to disrupted adenovirus: a vaccine strategy to evoke high-titer immunity against addictive drugs. Mol Ther. 2011 Mar, 19(3):612-9. Epub 2011 Jan 4.
  • Photo courtesy of Sanofi Pasteur on Flickr: