Shoot-up to stay drug-free – the promise by Drs. Tom and Therese Kosten, the husband and wife team, researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine, who’ve developed a cocaine vaccine.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the Kostens have been working on the cocaine vaccine for the last decade. The idea behind the concept is to inject a modified cocaine molecule into the body to stimulate the immune system. After the immune system recognizes the cocaine molecule, subsequent exposure to the cocaine molecule will stimulate the immune system to destroy the molecule before it is able to mount its activity on the brain. The reason that the cocaine molecule evades the immune system is because it is too small to be recognized. The Kostens have created a molecule large enough to stimulate the immune system.

It’s a brilliant idea and it is working.  From Phase 2 clinical trials, the Kostens found that addicts who receive their vaccine on average use 50% less than they did previously. They are currently waiting approval by the FDA to start Phase 3 clinical trials where they will enroll 300 addicts in their cocaine withdrawal program that will include vaccine therapy and psychological counseling.

There are many ethical issues being put on the table in regards to the vaccine’s use. Although it may be a great tool to stop cocaine addiction, the concern is whether or not it is ethical to give the vaccine to children in an attempt to steer-head their use of the drugs before it even occurs?

[the structure on the left :: Hyoscyamine; right :: Cocaine]

My concern is the medical safety of this vaccine. Cocaine is a small molecule that has chemical properties as well as structures similar to those molecules that naturally occur in the body. In the above figure, one can visually see that cocaine is a very similar in structure to the drug hyoscyamine. Hyoscyamine is used to calm intestinal spasms. What will happen when we create an immune system that looks after similar molecules? Yes, it does destroy the cocaine molecule when it sees it, but does it also destroy drugs with similar structure or naturally occurring molecules in the body with a similar structure?

That being said, it is wise to note that there are over 22 million cocaine users in the United States, costing the US population nearly half a trillion dollars annually. In the end, I’d to take a quote from Dr. Peter Cohen, a Georgetown law professor and chairman of the District of Columbia Medical Society’s physician health committee: “Overall, the benefits to society of such vaccines would outweigh the risks. There are certainly important issues there, but I don’t think any are insurmountable.”