NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Cocaine is one of the most addictive of all drugs. And an estimated 1.5 million Americans are hooked on it.
But what if there were a vaccine that could help people kick their drug habit? As CBS 2's Dr. Max Gomez reported Thursday, just such a vaccine is about to be tested in humans.
It is a major drug problem. Nearly $40 billion a year is spent on cocaine, which also makes it a drug of choice for organized crime.
It is also considered one of the most difficult drug habits to kick, mostly because it zeros in on the pleasure centers of the brain.
"In about 10 seconds it reaches the brain. And what it does in the brain [is] it blocks the uptake of some of the signals that go between brain cells, and if that floods the brain with signals that gives the high," said Dr. Ronald Crystal of Weill-Cornell Medical College.
But what if you could make a vaccine that blocked that high, sort of like a flu shot for addiction?
The trouble is cocaine is such a small molecule that the immune system doesn't respond to it as it would against bacteria or viruses, Dr. Gomez reported.
So Dr. Crystal, the chairman of Genetic Medicine at Weill-Cornell took a different approach, attaching cocaine to a modified cold virus called an Adeno virus.
"The body thinks that it's a cold virus, but really it's the cocaine and the body makes antibodies against the cocaine. Think of it like little Pac-Man floating around in the blood and they're Pac-Man against cocaine. Cocaine goes into the blood stream, antibodies bind to it, prevent it from getting to the brain," Dr. Crystal said.
So if someone takes cocaine, it has no effect. No high, no pleasure, wasted money.
Dr. Gomez then observed what that looks like in scan of monkey brains.
"If we look at a vaccinated animal -- here's before we give cocaine and now in this picture is after we give cocaine -- and we see the cocaine never reaches its receptors in the brain because the vaccine has induced antibodies that bind up the cocaine and don't allow it to get to the brain," Dr. Crystal said.
Crystal said the vaccine would likely have to be repeated monthly to maintain immunity. And if it works for cocaine, the same virus technique could be used against other addictive drugs, like heroin, oxycodone, methamphetamine and nicotine.
Human trials should begin next year, Dr. Gomez reported.
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