Weil Cornell Medical College is conducting a research study for a new cocaine vaccine that could render cocaine “useless.” It’s a novel approach that may offer a new kind of addiction recovery option for the estimated 1.4 million cocaine users in the United States.
Cocaine and the human brain
In a mid-2013 release about the study, Dr. Ronald Crystal, the college’s chairman of the Department of Genetic Medicine and developer of the new vaccine, explained that cocaine works in the pleasure center of the brain, specifically in the putamen and caudate nucleus where it interferes with dopamine. “Cocaine, a tiny molecule drug, works to produce feelings of pleasure because it blocks the recycling of dopamine — the so-called ‘pleasure’ neurotransmitter,” says Dr. Crystal. “When dopamine accumulates at the nerve endings, you get this massive flooding of dopamine and that is the feel good part of the cocaine high.”
The problem, of course, is that the cocaine high is also associated with many health risks, both acute and long-term. According to drugabuse.gov, acute risks include cardiovascular problems, cerebrovascular emergencies as well as seizures, while long-term effects can range from chronic nasal septum issues to malnourishment, among other chronic ailments.
How research shows the anti-cocaine vaccine might work in people
Dr. Crystal and his colleagues developed the anti-cocaine vaccine to work similarly to other vaccines, using the body’s natural defense structure: the immune system. Combining a common cold virus and a molecule that mimics the structure of cocaine, they created the vaccine and administered it in animals to test the immune response. The first round of research used mice, while the most recent trial used non-human primates.
The study revealed there was indeed a strong immune response to the concoction. Recognizing the cold virus, the body created an immune defense. Since the molecule that mimics cocaine was included with the cold virus, the body made an associated defense. It identified cocaine, like the cold, as an imposter.
In the mice trials, the doctors extracted the produced antibodies and discovered that the antibodies destroyed cocaine upon contact.
Moving next to non-human primates, the results showed that the vaccine had strong promise for inhibiting the dopamine high produced by cocaine.
Potential help for addicts
Because the cocaine “high” directly impacts the brain’s pleasure reward center, the vaccine essentially renders cocaine useless, as vaccinated abusers would not experience the high. The results do suggest that boosters (additional rounds of the vaccine to “boost” the immune’s response) might be needed in order to maintain the vaccination effects, but overall, Dr. Crystal is hopeful that it will be a positive solution for those struggling with cocaine addiction.
With the success of the non-human primate trials, Dr. Crystal and his colleagues hope to move to human trials in the next year.
Cocaine addiction is painful and dangerous. If you or a loved one is living with an addiction, get help. Call The Watershed today: 1-800-861-1768.