For the past twenty-five years an organisation in San Diego, the Scripps Research Institute, has been attempting to come up with an addiction vaccine in order to immunise drug users against dependency. The vaccine would work in a similar way to other vaccines; the body would learn to recognise the substance as an intruder and would immediately produce antibodies to fight it and prevent the effects taking hold. The idea is that if the substance is prevented from reaching its target (the brain) then over time the brain will stop craving it and there we have it – an addiction vaccine!
However, the fact that this research has been on-going for such a long period of time suggests it is not so straightforward. The current vaccine being researched by the Scripps Research Institute is aimed at tackling cocaine specifically, and whilst their research with mice is showing encouraging results – could this be replicated in humans? And would it work for every human or would genetic factors mean the results varied between individuals? Trials on humans are planned for 2013 so it may be that we are on the brink of discovering a successful addiction vaccine.
The problem I foresee is that of the “dry drunk” – someone who is no longer using the substance, but is still very much exhibiting the behavioural traits of an addict; being secretive, isolating themselves, being deceptive etc. In my opinion the vaccine would only be appropriate to use after the person had received therapy for the psychological aspects of the addiction – perhaps in the same way that Antabuse or Naltrexone should be used. The obvious advantage over these pre-existing medications is that the addiction vaccine would not depend on the person to be motivated to take it on a regular basis – the assumption being that the vaccine would provide life-long protection.
Consideration must also be given to cross-addiction though. A vaccine against cocaine is fantastic, but that presents the possibility that the person will switch to a different substance that is not affected by the vaccine. There is also the potential for overdose by a frustrated addict increasing their intake to try and seek the same high. However, these are a lot of negatives in relation to something that could possibly help millions of people. Therefore, I will continue to watch these developments with interest.
What are your thoughts? Is an addiction vaccine a good idea?