Cocaine is a very serious narcotic drug. It is highly addictive and can have devastating effects on health and well-being. Numerous users begin casually, thinking they can try cocaine and end up becoming hopelessly addicted. Getting over a cocaine habit is very difficult and relapse rates are high. Even with the help of a recovery facility, a twelve-step program, therapy, and the support of friends and family, it is not easy to stop using cocaine for good. All that could change with the advent of a vaccination designed to kick the habit once and for all.
Why is Cocaine so Bad?
To understand the drastic need for vaccine-assisted recovery, you need to understand what makes cocaine such a powerful substance. It comes from the leaves of the coca plant, which is native to South America. For thousands of years, people used the leaves to treat pains, fatigue, indigestion, altitude sickness, and more. In modern times, the compound cocaine, which exists naturally in coca leaves, was isolated and extracted.
As a drug, most people inhale cocaine in the form of a white powder. It moves easily into the brain from the bloodstream, where it causes dopamine to be released. Dopamine is brain chemical that causes pleasurable feelings, hence the high that users experience. The more a person uses cocaine, the greater their tolerance becomes, requiring more and more of the substance to get a high. This inevitably leads to addiction.
The toll that cocaine takes on the body is very serious. Signal pathways in the brain get permanently changed by the use of cocaine. Additionally, continued use can cause muscle twitching and tremors, vertigo, holes in the nasal passages, hallucinations, psychotic symptoms, paranoia, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, seizures, and even death.
Because cocaine alters the brain of the user, becoming dependent is easy and getting clean is next to impossible. So many well-meaning addicts try to come clean and experience short-term success only to relapse one, two, or several months down the line. For this reason, a medication of some type that can stop this cycle is greatly needed.
An innovative new solution’ has been developed by researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine. Psychiatrist Tom Kosten developed and tested a vaccine for cocaine that is showing very promising results for addicts. A vaccine is something that is injected into a person to help their immune system produce antibodies. Antibodies are compounds in the bloodstream that attack invaders like viruses and bacteria. Different antibodies are specific to different invading substances. To vaccinate against the flu virus, for instance, the injection contains inactive flu particles, which stimulates the immune system to create antibodies against the flu virus.
In the case of the cocaine vaccine, Kosten used inactive proteins from cholera attached to a molecule of cocaine. When the patient is injected with the vaccine, the immune system creates antibodies against the cholera and the cocaine. With those antibodies in the bloodstream, any cocaine present is targeted and destroyed. So, if the addict relapses, using the cocaine will have no resulting high because it will be eliminated by the antibodies.
In a trial of the vaccine versus a placebo, 50 percent of those with the vaccine stayed clean after several weeks. Only 35 percent of those receiving the placebo were able to stay clean. Those addicts in the study who did not relapse and use cocaine again also did not turn to other substances, which is common when in recovery.
One problem that the researchers encountered during the study was that most participants did not build up high levels of the antibodies and that they only lasted in the bloodstream for about two months. To compensate, researchers hope to have recipients receive booster shots every two months for up to two years for the greatest effect.
Overall, the results of the vaccine study were so positive that the researchers and other groups are now developing similar vaccines for other substances. They hope to have a vaccine for methamphetamines, heroin, and nicotine ready for human use after successful animal trials.
Although beating a cocaine, or any substance, addiction can seem overwhelming and nearly impossible, hope is around the corner. With counseling, support from loved ones, recovery programs, and a new vaccine, addicts can now quit with more success than ever before.