Raising the Stakes in the War on Cocaine Addiction

War on Drugs

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A 28 year old Viennese neurologist named Sigmund Freud read about the benefits of cocaine on Bavarian soldiers. He decided to use it to treat his own problems with depression and chronic fatigue and acquired some from Merck. On April 30th 1884, Freud used cocaine for the first time. He thought it was “a magic drug.”

Cocaine turned his bad mood into cheerfulness; it even helped his indigestion.  He wrote to Martha, his fiancée: “In short, it is only now that I feel I am a doctor, since I have helped one patient and hope to help more.” Freud encouraged Martha to try cocaine, “to make her strong and give her cheeks a red color.” He warned her that when he came for a visit, she should expect “a big wild man who has cocaine in his body.”

He gave cocaine to his sisters and also to medical colleagues—both for themselves and for their patients. By July of 1884 he had written and published his first essay praising the therapeutic uses for cocaine. His hope was that he would become a pioneer in the medical uses of cocaine. But there would not be a happy ending to the story of Freud and cocaine.

These days the ongoing saga of medicine and cocaine is the quest to find a vaccine to cure those who become addicted to it.

I’ve been following the attempts to develop a vaccine for cocaine and other illicit drugs since 2009, when the National Institute of Health (NIH) reported on the work of Thomas Kosten with TA-CD. Nora Volkow, the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), said: “The results of this study represent a promising step toward an effective medical treatment for cocaine addiction.”

But some of the participants in Phase 1 of the clinical trials reported using TEN TIMES as much cocaine when trying to override the blocking action of the cocaine vaccine. The Washington Post, reported on the Kosten’s research in January of 2010, saying: “Some of the addicts reported to researchers that they had gone broke buying cocaine from multiple dealers, hoping to find a variety that would get them high.”

A 2011 article in the New York Times highlighted the work of Kim Janda who was working on a cocaine vaccine. His laboratory, the Scripps Research Institute, has also worked on vaccines for nicotine and heroin. In June of 2011 Janda published positive results with what he called an “anti-heroin vaccine.”

New York Magazine reported in September of 2013 that Ronald Crystal, the head of genetic medicine at Weill Cornell, had success with the third version of Janda’s original cocaine vaccine. He hopes to begin human trials by the middle of 2014. A side bar indicated that vaccines were in development for alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine and rohypnol (the date rape drug).

But as Clint Rainy commented in his New York Magazine article, the problem with addiction is it’s not just a physical problem, it’s also psychological. “Even if you can cancel the effects of drugs, can you make us not want to take them?” Crystal thinks that shouldn’t be a problem for his compound, as it was with TA-CD, because they tweaked their compound (dAd5GNE) to have a “more robust” immune response. Crystal’s response seems to miss an important limitation to a purely physiological attempt to cure addictive “disease.” The vaccine can only inhibit the physiological response to the drug; not the psychological one.

While Kosten’s work with TA-CD has begun clinical trials with humans, the work of Janda with heroin and Crystal with cocaine has yet to be tried on humans. But it’s coming soon. One person who responded to the New York Magazine article about Crystal’s cocaine vaccine said: “This would be a dream come true for me and save my life.” He believed that with the vaccine, he wouldn’t get high. After a few months, he imagined he wouldn’t be thinking about it anymore, but would “just keep getting vaccinated to be safe.”

But it seems that developing a cocaine vaccine as an attempt to end cocaine addiction merely raises the stakes for some addicted individuals by requiring larger amounts of the drug to overcome the vaccine. A vaccine doesn’t address the psychic desire for the drug. If a vaccine is successfully developed for heroin and other opioids, their current potential for deadly use could also increase tenfold.

Do you think that drug vaccines would be a helpful or a dangerous addition to the available treatments for addiction?


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