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Cocaine Vaccine Contains Cold Virus, Holds Hope for Addicts


What do you get when you combine the common cold virus with a substance that mimics cocaine? According to the results of a new study, you get a cocaine vaccine that works in mice and that hopefully will lead to an effective vaccine to help cocaine addicts break free of their addiction.

The cocaine vaccine awaits testing in humans

Cocaine is an addictive central nervous system stimulant that is injected, smoked, or snorted. Crack is cocaine hydrochloride powder that has been processed to form a rock crystal, which people can then smoke. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes that in 2008, 5.3 million Americans age 12 and older had abused cocaine in any form, and 1.1 million had abused crack on at least one occasion in the year before they were surveyed.

According to the lead investigator of the new study, Dr. Ronald G. Crystal, “Our very dramatic data show that we can protect mice against the effects of cocaine, and we think this approach could be very promising in fighting addiction in humans.” Crystal, who is chairman and professor of genetic medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, noted that the vaccine effect lasted for at least 13 weeks in the vaccinated mice.

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Currently there are no FDA-approved medications for treating cocaine addiction. Cognitive-behavioral therapy combined with social support (e.g., Cocaine Anonymous) can be effective at decreasing cocaine use and preventing relapse when the treatment is specially tailored to the individual patient’s needs.

The investigative team, which was composed of scientists from Weill Cornell Medical College, Cornell University, and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, found that the vaccine they developed triggers an antibody immune response that binds to and sequesters cocaine molecules so they do not reach the brain, thereby preventing cocaine-related hyperactivity.

Crystal points out that unlike previous attempts to produce immunity against cocaine, “this is the first that will likely not require multiple, expensive infusions, and that can move quickly into human trials.” The cocaine doses administered to the mice in the study reflected amounts that humans might use.

Crystal predicts that if the cocaine vaccine works in humans, the best results will be seen in cocaine addicts who are trying to quit the drug. “The vaccine may help them kick the habit because if they use cocaine, an immune response will destroy the drug before it reaches the brain’s pleasure center.”

Hicks MJ et al. Molecular Therapy 2010; doi:10.1038/mt.2010.280
National Institute on Drug Abuse