Researchers Seek Vaccines to Stop Drug Addiction

Researchers Seek Vaccines to Stop Drug Addiction

The federal government has awarded $5 million in grants to two research teams trying to develop vaccines for drug addiction.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) targeted grants of $500,000 a year for five years to both Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and the University of Connecticut. Dr. Thomas Kosten is leading the Baylor team to find a vaccine for methamphetamine, and Dr. Peter Burkhard’s team in Connecticut is working on one for nicotine.

NIDA estimates that 22 million Americans are abusing drugs, and that addiction costs the United States $84 billion in lost earnings, crime, health care expenses, and accidents. The hope is that young people could actually be vaccinated against addiction, and that current addicts could use vaccines to reverse their conditions.

Vaccines for various drug addictions all work in the same way. The theory is that small molecules, such as cocaine molecules, can easily enter the bloodstream. If these tiny molecules bind to large protein molecules, the human immune system will attack them and eventually break them down.

“It’s like a big sponge for cocaine,” Dr. Kosten said. “The drug remains trapped in the blood until it is metabolized and made inactive by the liver and secreted in the kidneys.”

As early as 1970, researchers at the University of Chicago tried to develop a vaccine against heroin addiction. The vaccine worked successfully on monkeys, but not with humans. Dr. Kim Janda from the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, produced a vaccine against heroin that had also worked in rats that would stop seeking the drug after they received the vaccine. However, it worked no better than a placebo on human subjects. Vaccines for cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana, developed at Columbia University in New York in 2010, were effective on humans only 38% to 67% of the time; and even among those subjects who showed improvement, results were mixed.

“The big problem plaguing these vaccines right now is difficulty predicting in humans how well it’s going to work,” Dr. Janda said.

Dr. Burkhard’s team will spend 18 months developing the nicotine vaccine, one year manufacturing it, and more than two years in clinical trials.

“Our greatest challenge is generating as strong an immune response as possible to induce the effect we are looking for,” he said. The idea has been around for a while … and it only works if you have really high levels of antibodies. Most of the clinical trials failed for this reason, because they were only able to induce anti-bodies in 30% of the population, and that is simply not good enough.”

Dr. Burkhard noted that seven million people die from smoking every year, which is the equivalent of the entire population of Switzerland.

“It is a tremendous step forward to have a vaccine to prevent smoking, not only for the seven million who die but also for the countless millions who are living with their smoking addiction,” he said.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIDA, said the group’s goal is “to support investigators of exceptional creativity who propose bold and highly innovative, new research approaches that have the potential to produce a major impact on the treatment of drug abuse. … Vaccines have a unique role to play in a comprehensive strategy to help people overcome addictions. A successful vaccine will make it easier for addicted individuals to establish and maintain abstinence.”

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