29 May Development of a Methamphetamine Vaccine
Vaccination is a method that doctors use to stimulate the immune system and either prevent the appearance of a particular disease or diminish the effects of a disease if it does appear. A vaccine achieves these goals by triggering a reaction called an antibody response, which puts the immune system on alert for a specific type of foreign invader. Currently, drug abuse researchers are developing a vaccine designed to help stop the illegal, addictive drug methamphetamine from making its classic changes on normal brain function. The method used to produce this effect strongly resembles the antibody response generated by vaccines that fight off infectious diseases.
Antibodies are proteins produced by cells in the immune system called lymphocytes. Once released into circulation by lymphocytes, they play an essential role in the body’s immunological defenses by attaching themselves to microorganisms and other types of invaders. When an unwanted invader gets “tagged” by an antibody, it draws the attention of other components of the immune system, which respond to the presence of an antibody tag by rushing to the site and destroying the targeted interloper. Doctors and researchers call this process the antibody response. Each time a new invader is encountered, the body creates a specific antibody for that invader as part of the overall immune response. If the same invader ever reappears, the presence of an antibody for that invader will give the immune system a faster response time. In turn, this rapid response will reduce the body’s risks for developing a serious illness or disease.
During vaccination, doctors purposefully introduce limited amounts of a microorganism or some other invader into the body. In reaction to this invasion, the immune system produces an antibody response and makes a specific disease-fighting antibody for the unwanted organism/substance. In this manner, vaccination protects the body from any future encounters with a full-strength version of an infectious microorganism. Doctors can make vaccines from inactive or weakened versions of a foreign invader, or from pieces or particles derived from that invader.
Methamphetamine can only produce its mind-altering, addictive effects by passing from the bloodstream to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) through a network of tiny blood vessels (capillaries), known collectively as the blood-brain barrier. Unlike other capillaries in the body, the vessels in this barrier have very small openings in their walls that prevent most substances from passing freely back and forth. Methamphetamine molecules are small enough to make it through the openings in the blood-brain barrier; once inside the central nervous system, they produce their effects by changing the ways in which that system uses several different chemical messengers, known as neurotransmitters.
The underlying goal of methamphetamine vaccination is to stop methamphetamine molecules in the bloodstream before they have a chance to pass through the blood-brain barrier and reach the central nervous system. Without access to this system, the drug will circulate in the bloodstream with minimal effect until it gets broken down (metabolized) and eventually eliminated from the body. To achieve this goal, researchers at several different institutions have been looking for substances that can act as artificial antibodies by alerting the immune system to the presence of methamphetamine and triggering an immune response that keeps the drug from penetrating the blood-brain barrier.
Up until 2011, researchers encountered considerable difficulty finding a substance that could work effectively as a methamphetamine antibody while remaining cost-effective enough for mainstream use. However, in 2012, researchers at The Scripps Research Institute reported the development of three different substances that may eventually be able to produce a beneficial antibody response at a relatively low cost. Each of these substances contains a chemical that’s highly similar to methamphetamine, as well as a second chemical that makes the methamphetamine-like material more visible to the human immune system. During animal testing in a laboratory setting, all three of the substances under investigation produced a strong antibody response, and one of them—known as MH6—was clearly able to block some of methamphetamine’s central nervous system effects.
Future Routes of Investigation
In order for it to be truly useful, a methamphetamine vaccine must successfully block more of meth’s effects than MH6 and also work for longer periods of time, according to a study review published in 2012 in the journal Biological Psychiatry. However, the authors of the study note that the current phase of development for MH6 is more or less in line with research expectations, and continued investigations of this substance (or similar substances) will probably produce improved results at some point in the not-too-distant future.
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