30 Mar Meth Vaccine Shows Promise
When scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in California gave rats meth, the rodents showed few signs of intoxication. “This is an early-stage study, but its results are comparable to those for other drug vaccines that have then gone to clinical trials,” said Michael A. Taff, an addiction sciences expert at Scripps. The results of the study were published in November 2012.
lthough it is not yet known whether the success of the rat vaccine will translate to success in humans, a solution with even the slightest chance of reducing meth addiction in the United States is welcome news.
Methamphetamine acts on the central nervous system and is similar to amphetamine. It is cheaper than most illicit drugs and is known by such street names as crank, crystal meth, Tina and chalk. Meth typically comes in the form of a crystal white powder that can be swallowed dry or mixed with a beverage. Because of its highly addictive nature, the only legal way to obtain meth is with a doctor’s prescription and, even then, the dose prescribed will be a fraction of what is typically taken for recreational use.
That is not to say, however, that methamphetamine is difficult to get. It is illegally produced and imported into the United States in huge quantities and demand for the drug continues to rise. The production of illegal meth has become such an enormous issue that federal and state restrictions on the sale of the precursor chemical, pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient in cold medicines, have been instituted.
Close to half a million people in the United States take some form of methamphetamine for recreational purposes, with a large number of users having become addicted to the drug. The frequency of meth abuse has increased dramatically in the U.S. over the last 20 years. Addiction treatment professionals list methamphetamine addiction as one of the most intractable diseases they treat.
Like many other narcotic substances, methamphetamine quickly increases the levels of dopamine in the brain and prevents cells from absorbing the substance back into the brain tissue to store for future use. This artificially high level of dopamine affects the pleasure and reward center of the brain, causing the user to feel euphoric. Once the drug wears off, it leaves the user wanting more in order to repeat the pleasurable effects.
Prolonged abuse of methamphetamine will actually change the structure and function of the human brain, especially with regard to how the central nervous system reacts to dopamine. For example, brain imaging studies have shown that prolonged use of meth leads to a reduction in motor skills and memory, in addition to problems with regulation of emotions. In some patients, these debilitating biological changes will remain even after they have recovered from methamphetamine addiction.
Less severe meth side effects include weight loss, dental issues, sleep and mood problems, anxiety and even confusion. In some cases, the user will experience psychotic symptoms such as paranoia or hallucinations. At present, the only proven treatment for methamphetamine addiction has been detoxification combined with cognitive behavioral therapy and 12-step support meetings. Many who have recovered from meth addiction are unable to sustain sobriety over a prolonged period of time.
How the Vaccine Works
During the recent Scripps study, researchers discovered that the antibodies created with the vaccine attach to the molecules that make up methamphetamine and prevent them from reaching neurons in the brain where the drug would typically cause euphoria. Without the corresponding high, it is believed that meth addicts would quickly quit the drug. Although researchers have attempted a meth vaccine in the past, it is a complicated substance to work with as the human immune system does not react to many of the drug’s molecules and, as such, antibodies are not triggered. The solution? Pairing the antibody with a larger carrier antibody that the human immune system does recognize. Once the successful carrier molecule was discovered and introduced, rats injected with the vaccine failed to experience the increase in physical activity that is a hallmark of methamphetamine use.
Treating addiction with other types of drugs is not a new phenomenon. For decades, addiction professionals have been prescribing Antabuse to alcoholics to prevent them from relapsing. The concept is slightly different than the methamphetamine vaccine in that people who take Antabuse actually get violently ill if they ingest alcohol, whereas the methamphetamine vaccine simply blocks the pleasurable effects of the drug.
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