TSRI Researcher Develops New Vaccine to Treat Cocaine Addicts

By Jason Socrates Bardi

A group at TSRI has designed a new vaccine against cocaine that could become a valuable tool in treating addiction. Principal investigator Kim Janda and his colleagues in the chemistry and neuropharmacology departments have synthesized this molecule and tested its efficacy against cocaine.

Structurally similar to cocaine, this vaccine was successful in laboratory models—data that is presented in the February 13th issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the mid-1990s, Janda’s group discovered a previous and similarly potent vaccine.

“[These vaccines] suppress the reinforcing aspects of the drug,” says Janda. What is most interesting is, unlike other types of treatment, these vaccines do not interfere with the neurological targets of the drug, but instead help the body keep cocaine from ever reaching the brain in the first place.

The vaccines do this by inducing an active immune response that creates antibodies against cocaine in the bloodstream. If an addict later takes a hit, the antibodies will clear the cocaine from the system.

Clinically, this sort of therapy could be given to people in treatment programs to aid in their recovery. And, like most other types of treatment, it will only be useful for those who want the help.

“This is for people who are who are interested in getting off the drug,” says Janda. This may be a large market.

Though the epidemic of cocaine addiction has waned somewhat since its peak in the mid-1980s, the numbers are still alarming. There are nearly 2 million regular cocaine users in the United States today, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and cocaine is the leading cause of heart attacks and strokes for people under 35.

The Drug

Cocaine, which is derived from the leaf of the Erythroxylaceae coca plant, is a highly potent drug that, as a salt, is either snorted or dissolved in water and injected directly into the bloodstream. The salt is also often neutralized to make an insoluble “free-base” form that is smoked.

Once it is ingested in the bloodstream, the drug crosses the blood–brain barrier and accumulates rapidly in the brain. “The brain levels rise very rapidly once cocaine is taken into the system,” says Janda.

Moreover, the cocaine builds up in the ventral tegmental area. This area is connected by nerve cells to the nucleus accumbens, the so-called pleasure center of the brain. There, the cocaine molecules interfere with the normal regulation of dopamine by binding to dopamine transporters and blocking them from recycling the neurotransmitter.

This leads to the build-up of dopamine in the brain’s pleasure center, which produces a euphoric feeling in the user—a quick rush that hits seconds after taking the drug that lasts several minutes.

The psychological effect of this immediate reward is the basis of the addiction that many cocaine users suffer from. Compulsive users—addicts—will keep a perceived need for the effect that will many times confound a recovering addict’s best efforts to stay clean.

There’s an old truism among intravenous drug addicts that their first boost—that first snort of coke, shot of heroin, or puff of crack—was the greatest feeling they had ever experienced. Many of them will also tell you that they too often spent their money, their health, their family, their friends, and their lives to get that feeling back.

“Many crack addicts will say the same thing,” says David Smith, founder and medical director of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics in San Francisco. “They will tell you, ‘I took 10,000 hits, one hit at a time,’ always thinking of the next.”

Smith has run outpatient and residential drug detoxification, counseling, and substance abuse treatment programs in his Bay area clinics since 1967. Cocaine abuse is especially problematic in urban settings like the Bay area, where high numbers of addicts create large markets—nearly $5 billion a year nationwide—which only increase the drug’s availability.


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Eli R. Callaway Jr. Chair in Chemistry and Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology Professor Kim Janda’s immunotherapeutic cocaine vaccines are unique among approaches to drug therapy. In fact, they more closely resemble the treatment of an infectious disease than a psychological disorder. (Janda, front, is pictured here with Postdoctoral Fellow Marion Wenz).










Diagram showing the ventral tegmental area of the brain and a representation of the synaptic basis for cocaine highs and addictions. (Picture courtesy of NIDA and the National Institutes of Health).