Fighting fire with fire: cocaine vaccines and the pharma-future of addiction treatment
Cocaine abuse is highly problematic in many parts of the world and has had a traumatic effect on public health. In response to the many problems associated with cocaine dependency and the high relapse rates after seeking treatment for this type of addiction, alternative treatment approaches are currently being explored. One of these alternatives that has gained recent media attention based on positive initial results are so-called ‘cocaine vaccines’. Read on to find out more about how these vaccines and other pharmaceutical remedies for cocaine addiction may offer a solution for many individuals susceptible to or suffering from cocaine addiction.
How cocaine works on the body
Although cocaine use remains highly prevalent in many parts of the world, particularly Oceania, cocaine is in fact one of the oldest known psychoactive substances. The effects of cocaine are dependent on a tiny molecule found in the leaves of the coca plant, native to South America. When taken into the body (typically snorted or smoked), these molecules enter the brain and bloodstream and block the routine transportation of dopamine out of the synapses. In case you are unfamiliar, dopamine is the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good…really good.
By blocking the normal movement of dopamine through the system, cocaine essentially causes a backup or overflow of pleasurable sensations. Achievable upon the first use of the drug, this feeling of intense pleasure is what recurrent users of cocaine continue to chase, and what makes cocaine one of the most addictive and dangerous drugs in the world.
How the vaccine works on cocaine
Given the highly addictive nature of cocaine, one can imagine that recovery from a cocaine addiction is a challenging process. Cocaine is recognized as having one of the highest relapse rates following addiction treatment. According to one source, cocaine has the third highest rate of relapse – heroine comes in first place, followed by alcohol at number two. These high relapse rates may be attributed largely to factors such as accessibility, affordability, level of social acceptance, and the fact that many treatment facilities offer detox for these drugs, but little or no additional treatment beyond detox.
Human will and chemical dependency both serve as huge hurdles to overcoming cocaine addiction, but science may offer a solution that is able to address addiction at its origins – in the brain.
Dr. Ronald G. Crystal has been conducting research at Weill Cornell Medical College for the past several years on cocaine vaccines that will enable those injected to develop cocaine antibodies, making them resistant to the effects of the drug.
Like other vaccines, cocaine vaccines are based on the idea of fighting fire with fire. Cocaine vaccines consist of one small part of cocaine, mixed with small parts of the common cold virus. When injected into the body in small amounts, together these two “viruses” trigger the body to form antibodies against cocaine, therefore minimizing the effects of the drug if one were to consume it in the future. The body is essentially tricked into thinking that cocaine is an enemy (which of course we know it is) that the body should reject for the sake of self-preservation.
Crystal is certainly not the first however. The first research into anti-drug vaccines was in fact done in the early 1970’s, on potential vaccines for heroin and morphine. However, once methadone (a drug now commonly used to beat heroin addiction) was developed and proven effective, research on anti-heroin vaccines was pretty much abandoned for a couple decades. Reportedly, interest in anti-drug vaccines started up starting in 1992 when buzz of an anti-cocaine vaccine surfaced. Following this, in 2001, significant research developments were made in the production of an anti-nicotine vaccine. More recently, methamphetamine vaccines have also been produced and their application in rodent populations has shown positive results.
So far, tests of cocaine vaccines have been done on only mice and primates, but the initial results look promising. In these trials, Dr. Crystal found that only 20% of the cocaine imbibed following administration of the vaccine was able to cross over the blood-brain barrier, resulting in almost no intoxicating effects on the subjects. These results are assumed to be mirrored in humans, but as previously mentioned human testing has not yet commenced.
A major challenge to researchers is that for unknown reasons, pharmaceutical companies have not shown much support for cocaine vaccines research. Speculations why this might be so are largely financially driven. Perhaps there are more profitable fields of research to be invested in at this time.
Another thing that is unclear about cocaine vaccines is the intended recipient. Will it be used solely as a treatment option for those seeking cocaine addiction treatment? Will it be administered to people who have not yet used the drug but who might be susceptible to addiction based on exposure or hereditary disposition to addiction? Will it be financially accessible? These are all questions that will need to be addressed if these vaccines were to make it to market.
Modafinil for the treatment of cocaine addiction
You may have heard the name Modafinil before; through your friends, coworkers, or social media feeds. Before we get into the relationship between Modafinil and cocaine, let’s first learn a little more about what the intended use of Modafinil.
For those who don’t already know, Modafinil is a readily available prescription drug used to increase alertness in patients who suffer from excessive drowsiness or narcolepsy. In the past, it has been prescribed mostly to people who do shift work.
In more recent years however, Modafinil has gained the reputation of being a so-called ‘smart-drug’ alongside Aterol and Ritalin. In fact, Modafinil was recently dubbed the ‘world’s first safe smart drug’ by researchers at Harvard and Oxford universities who suggested its negative side effects were minimal when taken for a short time. Given the newness to the market however and the sudden upsurge in use, long-term data on effects of Modafinil are simply not available yet, but we do know that it can lead to insomnia and make users vulnerable to behavioural addiction after noting positive impacts on their productivity.
To take a lesson from another stimulant that was once legal, let us consider the case of ‘Yaba’ or the crazy pill, used commonly in Southeast Asia. Yaba also had humble beginnings as a cheap, readily accessible, and legal drug. For years, Yaba was sold over the counter to truck drivers and shift workers to keep them awake and alert. However, after long-term effects of the drug were noted and it was discovered that it was in fact highly addictive, Yaba was made illegal.
This is to imply that Modafinil and Yaba are the same at all. In fact medical doctors and researched have concluded at this point that Modafinil has minimal side effects and seemingly does not result in addiction. The fact is however, as with any new drug, more research is needed before one can determine the long-term implications of use and Modafinil should be no exception to this.
In most places, Modafinil is only available by prescription and in the UK and other countries it is illegal to sell it, however, it is not illegal to buy it. Having heard the media hype and news from their friends of the positive effects of Modafinil on work productivity and promoting wakefulness, thousands of curious consumers around the world have flocked to Internet drug purchasing sites to order the drug in mass quantities at relatively cheap cost.
OK, now what does what is arguably the smartest new drug have to do with cocaine?
Real solutions or just replacements?
Clinical trials are currently being conducted on the interactions of Modafinil and cocaine. Some early findings suggest that taking Modafinil in tandem with cocaine lessens the rewarding effects of cocaine and therefore could potentially discourage the user from continuing to use cocaine.
Other studies however have looked more closely at the other side of the coin. While Modafinil may lessen the rewarding effects of cocaine, cocaine may cause rewarding effects of Modafinil to be felt that otherwise might not be felt if Modafinil is taken alone. So while Modafinil may prove to be effective at deterring cocaine addiction, using it with cocaine might cause the addict to become physically and cognitively addicted to Modafinil. In the future, if cocaine use is discontinued then, if the person continues to take Modafinil, they will not feel the same rewarding effects as before, and therefore be driven to resume their use of cocaine with or without Modafinil.
With both Modafinil and cocaine vaccines, some have argued that these are not true solutions but rather substitutions that may actually cause more damage or replace one addiction with another.
Dependency on pharmaceutical ‘solutions’ may also lead to lessened attention being given to the holistic therapeutic approach, one that we know works when it comes to beating addiction in the long-term.
Similar to how many heroin addicts become addicted to methadone, an anti-drug vaccine also poses the threat of becoming addictive itself as the long-term effects of these treatments are not yet known. There are also concerns that addicts could overdose on drugs to overcome any vaccine’s effect, or even turn to other drugs to feel a stronger high. In a 2010 study by Thomas Kosten, psychiatry professor at the Baylor College of Medicine on the effects of an anti-cocaine vaccine found that some cocaine addicts ended up with ten times as much cocaine in their blood than usual in an effort to overcome the blunting effect of the vaccine.
Although cocaine vaccines may provide a viable addition to the treatment regime, they should not be considered as a replacement to holistic healing approaches which have proven to be most effective. Without proper attention to the psychological and emotional factors and impacts of addiction, full recovery is simply not possible, with or without the added aid of a pharmaceutical ‘solution.’
Moral of the story, you don’t have to wait for a vaccine to emerge. If you or someone you know is suffering from cocaine addiction a wide range of help is available now. Contact us today for more information on holistic addiction treatment or to find a treatment center.