Cocaine, the party drug of the 1980s, never went away, even more than two decades later. This wake-me-up stimulant is still used by millions of people and it’s more than just a recreational drug. Users really get hooked on it, even if they think they can just party with the white powder a couple of times. Cocaine is highly addictive. It’s right up there with heroin and cocaine’s more deviant cousin, crack cocaine.
So far, no one has been able to crack the problem of a medical treatment for cocaine addiction. Heroin addicts have Buprenorphine and Naltrexone. Alcoholics have Antabuse and Campral. What’s a poor cokehead to do? Just slog it out in rehab with no medication? Never fear, researchers are close to a vaccine, and maybe even an antidote, for cocaine addiction.
Vaccine Prevents Mice from Getting High
Vaccines have long been used to prevent us from getting infections. The idea is to trigger the immune system to act against a particular virus or bacterium. The same idea is being applied to cocaine. A recent study from the Scripps Research Institute demonstrated that a vaccine used in mice could trigger the animals’ immune systems to attack cocaine. The result? When the mouse is administered a dose of cocaine, its immune system destroys the compound before it can get to the brain and get the animal high. If an addict gets no high from cocaine, he will have no reason to take it. Of course, the addict would have to agree to get vaccinated, but if he did the medication could prevent him from relapsing.
This was not the first research team or the first project to work on a vaccine against cocaine, but earlier efforts weren’t very effective. The Scripps team used a protein from bacteria, called flagellin, to help trigger the immune system and put it on the attack against cocaine. Flagellin has been used in other medical vaccines, and so far shows the most promise for a vaccine that targets a drug.
What About an Antidote?
Another research group, this one from the University of Copenhagen, thinks it has found the key to creating a cocaine antidote. The key lies in dopamine transporters in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is related to feelings of pleasure. It is a reward chemical that motivates us to repeat behaviors, like taking cocaine. Dopamine transporters are like vacuums for the neurotransmitter. When stimulated, they clean up excess dopamine. Cocaine inhibits the transporters, which results in a flood of the feel-good chemical.
The Danish researchers recently reported on some interesting discoveries about the structure of the dopamine transporter and how inhibitors act on it. They found other compounds that, like cocaine, inhibit the transporter. However, these other inhibitors attached to the transporter in a closed form. The result was that they had the opposite effect of cocaine and produced no flood of dopamine. With these discoveries, the researchers are certain they can come up with a new inhibitor drug that could counteract cocaine and help addicts avoid relapsing. The overall effect would be similar to a cocaine vaccine in that the drug user would no longer get a high from cocaine if they took the antidote.
The latest cocaine research is exciting, but it is important to understand there is no cure for any addiction. If you’re hooked on snorting cocaine, you need still have to go through all the therapy and group support that will help you work out your inner demons. But if you could supplement that with a vaccine or an antidote, you could have a really useful took for staying clean.