Ronald Crystal led a team from Cornell University, The Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology and The Scripps Research Institute in finding a cure for cocaine addiction. Their novel approach was to create a vaccine against cocaine.
Cocaine is a neurotransmitter inhibitor derived from the coca plant. Once ingested, either by injection, snorting or smoking, the drug rapidly crosses into the brain where, among other effects, it causes the neurotransmitter dopamine to accumulate. This results in the euphoric feeling that creates addiction.
Crystal and his colleagues decided to stop cocaine from entering the brain in the first place. To do this, they elicited the body’s immune response. They attached cocaine to non-illness causing parts of an adenovirus (a cause of the common cold) in the hopes that in targeting the cold virus, the immune system would also create antibodies to cocaine. If so, the immune response would clear the cocaine from the body before it could enter the brain. When tested in mice, this worked very well. Mice injected with this cocaine vaccine developed a strong immune response, and more importantly, showed much less effect from subsequent dosage with cocaine.
The researchers look forward to beginning human trials as soon as possible. However, they caution that this approach will only work in people who are actively trying to fight their cocaine addictions. If it does prove helpful for recovering addicts, the scientists expect similar vaccines to be made against other kinds of narcotics.