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Anti-cocaine vaccine may be almost ready for prime time

May 12, 2013
Courtesy of Weill Cornell Medical College
and World Science staff

A vac­cine meant to render co­caine harm­less and in­effect­ual has been suc­cess­fully tested in pri­ma­tes, and hu­man test­ing should beg­in with­in a year, re­search­ers re­port.

A study pub­lished on­line by the jour­nal Neu­ropsy­cho­phar­ma­cology in­di­cat­ed that the an­ti-co­caine vac­cine pre­vented the drug from reach­ing the brain and pro­duc­ing a high.

“The vac­cine eats up the co­caine in the blood like a lit­tle Pac-man be­fore it can reach the brain,” said the stu­dy’s lead in­ves­ti­ga­tor, Ronald G. Crys­tal, chair­man of the De­part­ment of Ge­net­ic Med­i­cine at Weill Cor­nell Med­i­cal Col­lege in New York.

“Even if a per­son who re­ceives the an­ti-co­caine vac­cine falls off the wag­on, co­caine will have no ef­fec­t,” he went on. There are an es­ti­mat­ed 1.4 mil­lion co­caine users in the Un­ited States, he added, and this is good news for those “com­mit­ted to break­ing their ad­dic­tion.”

The re­search­ers ex­pect that peo­ple tak­ing the vac­cine will al­so need boost­er shots at in­ter­vals that are as yet un­known. One vac­cine was found to last 13 weeks in mice and sev­en weeks in non-hu­man pri­ma­tes. “I be­lieve that for those peo­ple who des­per­ately want to break their ad­dic­tion, a se­ries of vac­cina­t­ions will help,” Crys­tal said.

Co­caine, a ti­ny mol­e­cule, pro­duces pleas­ure be­cause it blocks the re­cy­cling of dopamine—a mes­sen­ger mol­e­cule as­so­ci­at­ed with pleas­ur­a­ble feel­ings—in two ar­eas of the brain. Dopamine ac­cu­mu­lates at nerve end­ings as a re­sult.

The vac­cine com­bines bits of the com­mon cold vi­rus with a par­t­i­cle that mim­ics the struc­ture of co­caine. An an­i­mal in­jected with the vac­cine mounts an im­mune at­tack against both the vi­rus and the co­caine imper­sonator hooked to it. “The im­mune sys­tem learns to see co­caine as an in­trud­er,” Crys­tal ex­plained. “Once im­mune cells are ed­u­cat­ed to re­gard co­caine as the en­e­my, it pro­duces an­ti­bod­ies, from that mo­ment on, against co­caine the mo­ment the drug en­ters the body.”


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A vaccine meant to turn cocaine ineffectual and non-addictive has been successfully tested in primates, and human testing should begin within a year, researchers report. A study published online by the journal Neuropsychopharmacology indicated that the anti-cocaine vaccine prevented the drug from reaching the brain and producing a high. “The vaccine eats up the cocaine in the blood like a little Pac-man before it can reach the brain,” said the study’s lead investigator, Ronald G. Crystal, chairman of the Department of Genetic Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. “Even if a person who receives the anti-cocaine vaccine falls off the wagon, cocaine will have no effect,” he went on. There are an estimated 1.4 million cocaine users in the United States, he added, and this is good news for those “committed to breaking their addiction.” The researchers expect that people taking the vaccine will also need booster shots at intervals that are as yet unknown. One vaccine was found to last 13 weeks in mice and seven weeks in non-human primates. “I believe that for those people who desperately want to break their addiction, a series of vaccinations will help,” Crystal said. Cocaine, a tiny molecule, produces pleasure because it blocks the recycling of dopamine—a messenger molecule associated with pleasurable feelings—in two areas of the brain. Dopamine accumulates at nerve endings as a result. The vaccine combines bits of the common cold virus with a particle that mimics the structure of cocaine. An animal injected with the vaccine mounts an immune attack against both the virus and the cocaine impersonator hooked to it. “The immune system learns to see cocaine as an intruder,” Crystal explained. “Once immune cells are educated to regard cocaine as the enemy, it produces antibodies, from that moment on, against cocaine the moment the drug enters the body.”