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The Possibility of a Cocaine Vaccine


There has been research in recent years into the possibility of developing a cocaine vaccine that would be able to help people who are addicted to cocaine stop using. A cocaine vaccine would help people by either eliminating or reducing the drug’s effects, thus helping to slowly bring the brain back to its normal state rather than allowing them to continue flooding the brain with dopamine, as it the case in cocaine addiction.

Two notable approaches will be described in this piece: one from 2010 from Dr. Thomas Kosten of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and another in 2013 from Dr. Ronald G. Crystal of Weill Cornell Medical College.

Dr. Kosten’s Cocaine Vaccine

The findings from this study were published in December of 2010 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A vaccine developed by Dr. Thomas Kosten and a team of researchers had promising results in reducing cocaine use in a group of study participants.

The patients who experienced the vaccine’s desired effects were able to take much more cocaine than they normally took without experiencing any of its effects. This was achieved after three to four injections of the vaccine. The vaccine did reduce the amount of cocaine people took, but results greatly varied in terms of the amount of anti-cocaine antibodies that were produced. A certain level is needed for the vaccine to be reliable, and that was not consistent. Researchers believe that for people who are motivated to quit the number of antibodies necessary would be lower than for those who are less motivated.

After these results, the vaccine went into further development. If successful, researchers envision a two year course of vaccine aided treatment along with behavioral therapy.

How the Vaccine Works

cocaine vaccine

Efforts to develop a successful vaccine for cocaine are inching closer to success.

This vaccine consists of a small amount of cocaine chemically bound to a protein that stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies. These antibodies latch onto cocaine molecules in the bloodstream and form antibody complexes that are too large to pass through tissue into the brain. If enough antibodies are developed to capture most of the cocaine circulating in the blood, the drug will not reach the brain to produce its euphoric or other effects. If this is successful, the person in question will not experience the addiction-creating feelings and brain responses that are so problematic.

Dr. Crystal’s Cocaine Vaccine

The most recent version of a cocaine vaccine is being developed by researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College. According to research published in May of 2013, the vaccine had been successfully tested in primates, and was likely gearing up for human trials. This vaccine offers an interesting, novel approach to helping individuals who are addicted to cocaine, and those who may be on their way to addiction, to stop using the substance. It works to “eat up” cocaine from the blood stream before it reaches the brain. In this way people who take cocaine but are vaccinated will never feel its effects.

Researchers believe this will help the estimated 1.4 million American cocaine users who are addicted to the substance stop using. In addition, if someone was to ‘fall off the wagon’ who had quit, they would not feel the effects and would thus be less likely to use again.

How it Works

This vaccine is a combination of the common cold virus and a particle that acts similar to the structure of cocaine. Once the vaccine is administered, the body identifies the cold virus and activates the immune system to fight it off. This also ‘fights off’ the cocaine substitute, teaching the body that cocaine is an unwanted substance.

Dr. Crystal and his team of researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College tested the vaccine in primates, which are biologically closer to humans than the typical test animal, mice, and found that it effectively reduces the amount of cocaine that reaches the brain. It reduces it so much that it is able to prevent the cocaine high from occurring.

While the research is not complete yet, it is clear that the vaccine would need to be given a few times in order to help someone achieve long-term abstinence from cocaine. Treatment for cocaine addiction would be greatly helped with a vaccine.

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