New Vaccine Approach To Drug Abuse

A local doctor who treats addicted veterans has received a large federal grant to develop a vaccine for methamphetamine addiction. The research builds on his work developing a vaccine for cocaine. KUHF Health Science and Technology reporter Carrie Feibel has more on this new approach to drug abuse.

Vaccination against an illegal drug works the same way as vaccination against something like the flu virus.

Dr. Thomas Kosten conducts the research at the Michael E. Debakey Medical Center Hospital and at Baylor College of Medicine.

“So we attach the drugs of abuse to large proteins. The large protein that we’ve typically been using is an inactivated cholera toxin. And when you inject this into people they make antibodies to cholera, not surprisingly, but they also make antibodies to the cocaine, or nicotine or morphine or whatever else we’ve attached to the outside of this proteins.”

In clinical trials, cocaine addicts got five shots over three months, building up their levels of antibodies to cocaine.  

Even if they use cocaine, the antibodies grab onto the drug and keep it trapped in the bloodstream. The cocaine can’t migrate into the brain tissue and create a high.

“And so the drugs of abuse have no effect on you, you don’t feel anything.”

Kosten says 80 percent of the patients had a good antibody response.

“That’s pretty good for a medical standpoint.”

Roy Young is a Navy veteran and a former crack cocaine addict. He now works as a counselor at Career and Recovery Resources in Houston.

“That’s good in a sense. But the other side has to be treated too. And that’s the behavior. Can they change their thinking pattern, can they change their behavior.”

While the antibodies may block the high, they don’t reduce the craving for the drug. Kosten says that could prompt some addicts to use excessive amounts of cocaine to try to overcome the blockage.

That strategy will work for some addicts but not for others, depending on their immune response to the vaccine. Young says that’s why the vaccine would only help people who really want to stop using.

“It’s like saying, okay you’re not going to get this. And it would discourage you, if I can’t get this, the heck am I going to keep spending my money on it for. I’m wasting my money.”

Kosten’s grant from the National Institute for Drug Abuse will allow him to develop a methamphetamine vaccine along similar lines. He got $2.5 million dollars over the next five years.

Kosten says we don’t know exactly how many veterans are addicted to illegal drugs. He estimates about 20 percent.

Kosten says veterans who have PTSD or traumatic brain injury won’t really benefit from cognitive therapies if they are also addicted to drugs: 

“And you simply don’t retain any of this if you’re high all the time. So these treatments are just a waste of time if you’re dependent on these drugs.”

Kosten hopes to begin clinical trials on the meth vaccine within three or four years.

From the KUHF Health Science and Technology Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...