Would you vaccinate your child against cocaine?

Treatment Online has an interesting piece on the development of a cocaine vaccine. Unlike other drugs that reduce the pleasurable effect of addictive drugs, this is genuinely a vaccine – it persuades the immune system to attack cocaine molecules.

There are various drugs that are sometimes described conveniently, but inaccurately, as ‘vaccines’ for addictive substances.

For example, disufiram (aka Antabuse) creates a severe hangover 10 minutes after taking any alcoholic drink by inhibiting certain enzymes in the liver which break down alcohol. The idea is that it acts as an instant form of aversion therapy.

A drug called naltrexone blocks opioids in the brain which all pleasurable drugs trigger, either directly (in the case of heroin), or indirectly (in the case of alcohol). Naltrexone simply aims to reduce how ‘fun’ the drug is, leading to extinction of the link between the drug and the ‘high’.

However, neither of these are actually ‘vaccines‘ in the proper sense of the word.

Vaccines are substances that stimulate the immune system. The immune system identifies and adapts to the key features of the potentially dangerous invader, and works to destroy it.

Of course, this happens when foreign pathogens (like diseases) enter the body, but the immune system can be triggered by safe or less dangerous substances that share the ‘key features’ with the more dangerous disease. This safe or less dangerous substance is the vaccine.

Edward Jenner invented the procedure after working out that giving people a tiny amount of the non-lethal cowpox virus vaccinated them against the deadly smallpox virus. In fact, this is where the word ‘vaccinate’ comes from as ‘vacca’ means cow in Latin.

The developers of the new cocaine vaccine, known as ‘TA-CD’, are doing essentially the same thing by cleverly combining a deactivated cocaine molecule with a deactivated cholera toxin molecule.

The deactivated cholera toxin is enough to trigger the immune system, which finds and adapts to the new invader.

Because the cholera toxin and the cocaine molecule are combined, the immune system also adapts to the key features of cocaine, so works out how to seek and destroy cocaine molecules.

This means they never reach the brain in sufficient quantities to cause an effect.

A key advantage is that unlike other anti-addiction drugs, which have to be in the body to have their effect, the cocaine vaccine permanently changes the immune system to neutralise cocaine.

Of course, it may not be completely effective, or it may not work in all people, but that’s the aim.

The drug is about to studied with a Phase III clinical trial to see if it useful in treating cocaine addiction, after which, if it is shown to be safe and effective, it could be approved for widespread use.

Unlike the current concerns about the supposed ‘new ethical challenges’ of medical therapies being used by healthy people (which, as we’ve noted, are actually as old as drugs themselves), this therapy may present a relatively new ethical dilemma.

If effective, you can see that some parents might want to vaccinate their non-addicted, perfectly healthy children, so they are ‘immune’ to cocaine.

The difference here, is that once given, the ‘immunity’ may be permanent. In other words, you would make the decision that your child will never be able to experience the effects of cocaine for the rest of their life.

One interesting effect might be an ‘arms race’ between illicit drug producers and vaccine makers. As children become ‘vaccinated’ against the common drugs of abuse, the market for street drugs would fragment and diversify into drugs that don’t have vaccines yet.

A Brave New World indeed.

Link to Treatment Online on cocaine vaccine.
Link to PubMed papers on cocaine vaccine.
Link to Toronto Globe and Mail article on the vaccine.

8 Comments

  1. Q
    Posted January 4, 2008 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Ahhh, surely this would affect the brain natural supply of the stuff? Wouldnt it be making it similar to making serotonin unable to cross the synapse?

  2. Posted January 4, 2008 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    The brain doesn’t have a natural supply of cocaine, but cocaine increases the levels of dopamine (a naturally occurring neurotransmitter) in the synapse.
    However, it’s an interesting point for other drugs (like heroin / morphine) which do naturally occur in the brain. A vaccine for these might cause all sorts of problems.

  3. pierrest
    Posted January 4, 2008 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Drugs are not always used for “pleasure”, cocaine or derivated are often used for surgical purpose.. what will happens for the vaccinated.
    A proper education will be much better for all drugs addiction problem.

  4. tyre_s
    Posted January 4, 2008 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    A “arms ways” is what you would see. There are some known cocaine analogues. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cocaine_analogues
    The only reason you have not seen any of these analogues on the market now, is there is not a market for them. But seeing as there is alot of money in cocaine, if you see widespread use of this vaccines then you will have a hole in the market and some one will fill it. Plus most of these analogues are way more potent than cocaine. And you will see ODs just like when fentanyl analogues hit the street in the 80’s as a alternative for heroin.

  5. Posted March 23, 2009 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    It depends on a lot of things… it depends on what kind of relationship I have with my kid, if I trust him or not, it depends on the vaccine side effects, it depends on the drug risks my kid is exposed to. I don’t know at this stage if I want a vaccine to keep my child away from cocaine, let’s hope I’ll never have to consider this.

  6. paulacs
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    I agree that education against drugs is imperative.
    Unfortunately those who are severely addicted to crack need more than education. It is understood that most of these people are self medicating. With the vaccine they surely will seek out other, perhaps even more lethal drugs. Until the user finds peace he will continue to numb himself from his emotional pain. The real answer lies in removing the cause of the pain with counseling and balancing the brain with the proper chemicals it needs.(eg. lithium for bipolar disorders). Finding God has also had a very positive effect. Most of the recovery stories I have read have turned over their lives to God. I don’t understand why, but it works!

  7. wmclennan
    Posted January 19, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    This is total rubbish.
    The vaccine is to be used to help addicts who are on the road to the recovery. The idea being, if they lapse and give in to cravings, no reward will be received when taking cocaine.

    Also, Immunity lasts up to 13 weeks, no one has suggested it would last a life-time.

    for more info visit http://www.scienceandenvironment.wordpress.com

  8. paconcern
    Posted October 13, 2011 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    But wouldn’t this “vaccine” just make the person consume more of the drug, thinking the first dose was not strong enough, and lead to an overdose?? That seems pretty likely, especially if the person is trying it for the first time. If you ask me, that’s even worse.


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