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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    Wired Science: Vaccines for Drugs?

    Today, the Stony Brook Statesman initiates a new Monday feature. This column will highlight an innovative and controversial science concept. You may send your responses to

    Here is what seems to be a novel concept — a vaccine that builds resistance against drugs. As reported recently in the New York Times, several trials conducted in the United States have been relatively successful in developing a cocaine vaccine strong enough to build resistance to the infamous drug for as long as six months. The key is that the vaccine, now known as TA-CD, will not alleviate your addiction to cocaine. Instead, it will simply keep you from experiencing any high from the drug.

    I say that it seems to be a novel concept because several vaccine-like substances have tried to combat addiction in the past. Naltrexone, for example, blocks the pleasure centers of the brain, known as opioids. The drug user gives up the drug because it fails to produce a high.

    Another drug, Antabuse (or disufiram, technically speaking), gives a hangover barely minutes after taking an alcoholic drink. In what has been nicknamed “aversion therapy”, it inhibits the enzymes that are responsible for breaking down alcohol in the liver.

    The company that is currently manufacturing TA-CD claims that it is aimed at those who do not want to become re-addicted, especially if they have undergone rehabilitation.

    Unfortunately, addiction is lifelong and often comes in pairs (cocaine addicts tend to be heroin addicts as well). So, if addicts cannot successfully experience a high from cocaine, they are likely to move onto another drug.

    Also, only half of those who were given the vaccine in the U.S. study were able to successfully stave off the drug.

    Regardless of the long-term benefits of the vaccine, what is most captivating is the mechanism through which it works. The vaccine is made by attaching cocaine to deactivated cholera toxin molecules. The toxin molecules then stimulate the body’s immune system, which mounts a response of antibodies upon recognizing the drug. This keeps the cocaine from crossing the blood-brain barrier, which also happens to be the point of a high.

    At the most basic understanding of the immune system, the question that comes straight to my mind is, what if a signficant amount memory cells fail to form and the body’s secondary immune response is not strong enough? The British Broadcast Corporation (BBC) reported, “the vaccine must stimulate a very strong immune response so that every single cocaine molecule is mopped up if someone uses again. Otherwise a small number could get through and act like a teaser, causing the person to take even more to satisfy their cravings completely.”

    At a non-medical level, even more confounding ethical questions will be raised. Who gets inoculated is not as simple as the flu shot anymore. The vaccine will also need to be documented in your medical records. In that case, who has access to it? If we were to use it on pregnant addicts to protect their fetuses, is it comparable to taking folic acid or designing babies?

    If we do eventually use the vaccine as a prevention method, will everyone come forward? What about the inevitable side effects? And does it stop at cocaine? From what I know, works are in place for a methamphetamine, heroin and even a nicotine vaccine. Whether for better or worse, this concept is now very much experimental and in a few years might even get executed.

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