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Vaccine for Meth Addiction May Be on the Horizon

A promising new vaccine developed at the Scripps Research Institute may soon be ready for human clinical trials.

Crystal methamphetamine-- by Joann Jovinelly

The Gist

If you’re addicted to a drug, chances are you wouldn’t appreciate the opportunity to be injected with a vaccine to stop what you perceive as its “beneficial” affects. And while that premise may seem a little like science fiction, in actuality, scientists and other researchers have for decades been working on vaccines that may one day block the pleasurable affects of lots of addictive drugs, from cocaine to nicotine.

One such advancement in the race to create a vaccine for meth-addicted individuals got one step closer this month with MH6, the most successful of three meth vaccines recently developed at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

According to lead study author Michelle L. Miller, Ph.D., one of the reasons for MH6’s success is that it largely confined the drug to the bloodstream in lab rats, not the nervous system where its affects would have been much more dramatic. Miller called the results “encouraging” and expressed excitement about the potential to follow up in a future clinical trial with human participants.    

The study examining MH6 was published in the November issue of the medical journal Behavioral Psychology.  

The Expert Take

Dr. Kim D. Janda, Ph.D., and Professor of Chemistry at Scripps Institute, explains that vaccines developed for addictive substances like meth or cocaine work by encouraging the body’s immune system to produce antibodies that effectively block the drugs before they can affect the brain. Janda has made the research and development of such preparations his life’s work.

“The big problem plaguing these vaccines right now is difficulty predicting in humans how well [they are] going to work,” Janda told the New York Times. Despite the exactitude of the chemistry in the lab, every human immune system is different, so every reaction will be slightly different. Still, Janda and other researchers like him view the meth vaccine as a future promise of help for thousands of addicts with no other solution. “We view this as an alternative or better way for some people,” he continued.

“I think that this vaccine has all the right features to allow it to move forward in development,” said Janda. “It certainly works better than the other active vaccines for meth that have been reported so far.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), methamphetamine abuse has spread from small pockets in the United States in the 1990s to the entire nation. And though meth use has in the last few years declined significantly among young adults, more than 400,000 Americans currently use the drug every day. Many of them are in California, where most meth is manufactured.

Chronic methamphetamine addiction actually changes the structure of the brain over time according to this study, not to mention its harmful effects on fine motor functions, cognitive reasoning, and verbal skills. Meth addicts also typically suffer memory loss, serious dental problems, drastic reductions in weight, and changes in emotion. They may also be excessively violent and aggressive while “high.” Worse, the loss of brain function is only somewhat reversible after abstention; in some people, it takes six months to years for full brain function to return if it does at all. 

Source and Method

For their study, Miller and her team of researchers administered MH6 vaccinations to a group of meth-addicted lab rats, measuring their body temperatures and rates of activity, which should have increased. When the vaccination prevented a spike in body temperature and the bursts of energy that normally accompany the meth-addled rat brain, they knew that the results were potentially promising.

“These are encouraging results that we’d like to follow up with further animal tests, and we hope, with clinical tests in humans one day,” Miller explains.     

The Takeaway

Despite the promising results of the current Scripps study, researchers are still likely years away from marketable vaccines for meth addiction. For one thing, the vaccines are expected to be expensive, and the duration time of their effectiveness is short. For instance, the effects of the current doses used in the study only remain active for a few weeks at most.

Challenges aside, Janda does believe that scientists are on the threshold of such advancements, giving people further options to decrease the damaging results of addictive, life-threatening substances.

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Tags: Drugs , Epidemics , Latest Studies & Research , Public Health & Policy , Treatments

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