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Cocaine Addiction May Be Successfully Blocked with Vaccine

Update Date: May 13, 2013 02:38 PM EDT

Drug addiction is a notoriously difficult problem to fix. For many people who struggle with addiction, dealing with the condition is a lifelong problem. In addition, the problem affects a large swath of people; 1.4 million people suffer from addiction to cocaine, as an example, and would like to quit. Researchers from Weill Cornell Medical College may have helped make treatment for drug addiction slightly easier. They have developed a vaccine for cocaine addiction that has shown success in mice and in non-human primates.

Cocaine creates pleasure because of its effect on dopamine. The neurotransmitter, known as the "pleasure center", accumulates in the nerve endings of two areas in the brain, because the drug prevents it from being recycled. That build-up creates the "feel good" sensation that taking cocaine can provide.

The researchers created a vaccine for the drug using a common cold virus. Portions of the virus that causes the common cold are combined with particles that mimic the structure of cocaine. When the vaccine is injected, the body recognizes the common cold virus and launches antibodies at it. In the process, the body associates cocaine with the common cold, viewing it as an invader. That means that, even if someone with an addiction to cocaine were to relapse and attempt to take the drug once again, the body would fight cocaine, preventing it from reaching the brain and providing a high.

"The vaccine eats up the cocaine in the blood like a little Pac-man before it can reach the brain," the study's lead investigator Ronald G. Crystal said in a statement. "The immune system learns to see cocaine as an intruder. Once immune cells are educated to regard cocaine as the enemy, it produces antibodies, from that moment on, against cocaine the moment the drug enters the body."

Research on the vaccine has so far been performed on mice and on primates. In mice, when they were administered the vaccine and then cocaine, they were far less hyperactive than the mice who simply received the drug. In primates, the vaccine also proved to be successful.

Researchers are not yet clear on how long the vaccine could work in humans. In mice, the vaccine lasted 13 weeks; in primates, the vaccine lasted six.

The research is part of a growing field of research that attempts to target drug addiction with vaccines.

The study is published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

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