A vaccine that combats pre-established chemical dependency may be available soon, reports the New York Times. Scripps Research Institute chemist Dr. Kim Janda is at work on vaccines that could break various habits including smoking, heroin, cocaine and even excessive food consumption.
A war on drugs via addiction vaccine
While still in the early stages, Janda’s vaccines may one day free people from the grip of chemical addiction. In theory, the anti-addiction vaccines would work in a similar fashion to standard vaccines that combat disease. The immune system would be stimulated to produce antibodies that shut down whatever narcotic is attempting to take root in the body and brain.
However, Janda’s vaccines won’t simply be a preventative measure; they are intended to work for those who are already in the throes of addiction. He told the Times that this is when his vaccine will go to work on changing the physical pathways of the brain that have been paved over by a chemical addiction. Tested on heroin-addicted rats, Janda has seen heroin’s pain-deadening effects all but nullified.
How the addiction vaccine works
Scientifically, the anti-addiction vaccine is “simplistically stupid,” says Janda. The immune system is spurred to produce antibodies that fight the addiction, as well as future introduction of the drug into the system, if the user still has interest in drugs that (theoretically) will produce little or no effect.
The process isn’t simple, however. Molecules of substances like cocaine, nicotine and methamphetamine typically go undetected by the standard human immune system. To force the immune system to take notice, Janda’s vaccine attaches a small molecule called a hapten which, when bonded with a protein, elicits an immunological response. Finally, a chemical cocktail called an adjuvant further riles the immune system, tricking it into producing the antibodies necessary to combat the addictive properties present in the user’s system. It replaces the high of the drug, rather than merely blocking it, as anti-opiates do.
“It’s not like some magical premise,” Janda said. “And the beauty of it is you’re not messing with brain chemistry.”
Seeking FDA approval
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to grant approval to any of Janda’s anti-addiction vaccines. The results of human clinical trials have not been consistent.
“It’s like having the carrot right in front of the horse,” Janda said. “The big problem plaguing these vaccines right now is difficulty predicting, in humans, how well it’s going to work.”
Work on vaccines to combat alcohol addiction and marijuana abuse has been even less successful. With the former, the ethanol molecules are too small for protein and hapten platforms to attach, while with the latter, the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is too difficult to track.
Vaccines that block the effects of the peptide hormone ghrelin that signals hunger in the brain have produced moderate success in animal tests, but it is unclear whether the effect in humans will be similar.
Dr. Kim Janda on an anti-heroin addiction vaccine
Adjuvant Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adjuvant
Hapten Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hapten
New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/04/health/04vaccine.html
The Partnership at Drugfree.org: http://bit.ly/oqobao
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