More progress in the Search for an Addiction Vaccine
The discussions and debates revolving around the issue of vaccines for drug addiction continues to gain momentum as more scientific studies indicate that antibody producing experimental therapies are yielding significant results in animal laboratories. Leading scientists such as Kim Janda of the Scripps Institute have been publishing results that indicate a growing ability to artificially stimulate the immune system to attack the components of an illicit drug in the blood system and prevent those toxins from entering the brain. This, in effect, prevents the “high” effects from being realized – in other words, the “user” will take the drugs but will not feel the effects. While Janda’s present research is focused on cocaine, he and other scientists have been working on anti-addiction vaccines for years - vaccines to combat numerous addiction related drugs such as morphine, heroin, crystal meth, and marijuana as well as vaccines to counter nicotine and alcohol. The science involved here is highly complex and involves top academics in the field as well as large sums of research money to fund the experimentation. While such results suggest a positive outlook and have led to growing interest in the pharmaceutical and medical communities, there seems to be certain aspects of the research that fails to fully develop a hypothesis that incorporates some of the more difficult psychological nuances that are particular to drug addiction. Janda uses scientific language to emphasize the particulars of cocaine use, referencing the procedure by which there is a release of dopamine that stimulates the “reward system” in the brain, which, in turn, produces the euphoria that addicts seek. While the experimental vaccine should prevent the cocaine from affecting the brain, it can’t address the issues that led the addict to use the cocaine in the first place. Janda’s statement that cocaine addiction (or heroin/morphine/crystal meth addiction) is “nothing but a disease of the brain” is controversial in so far as other studies indicate that there are other variables involved in narcotic use and addiction. This is not said to undermine the importance of a vaccine – a vaccine would undoubtedly contribute positively to the treatment of cocaine addiction – it is only to emphasize the complexity and multiplicity of factors involved in cocaine, heroin and other drug addictions.
For the non-scientist (such as myself) the details related to these vaccines are difficult to comprehend. Terms such as “toxins”, “antigens” “carrier proteins” etc., are alien concepts that seem to be particular to the scientific and medical communities. The basic premise seems to be that the vaccine will stimulate the body’s own immune system to react to the introduction of the “drug” in an aggressive manner so as to render the dangerous component ineffectual. Preventing the brain from being invaded by the drug will diminish or eliminate the effects of the drug and will thus not produce the euphoria that the drug user seeks. While this sounds intriguing, a number of questions immediately come to mind. The first and most obvious is the fact that the individual is seeking that euphoria and if he/she is prevented from experiencing it with a particular drug, what is to stop them from seeking the same “high” through the use of another substance? In other words, if I am looking to get a “buzz” from a particular drug and, no matter how much of that drug I ingest, I can’t get high, why wouldn’t I just try another drug? Or, if the effects of the substance are dramatically reduced is it not probable that the user will end up taking much more of the substance in the hope of getting “higher” – subjecting his/her body to greater amounts of potentially lethal amounts of heroin and/or cocaine? This is a pattern already seen in drug addicts. The more they use, the less intense the high as they build up a natural immunity, the greater need to abuse larger amounts. In any case, whether the effects are completely or only partially reduced by the use of a vaccine, the central issue regarding the addiction remains: the desire to alter the state of perception – to get high. Furthermore, evidence suggests that the vaccines have varying effects on individuals dependent upon their genetic makeup. In other words, it will have a greater impact on those whose genes are more susceptible to the vaccine than others. But, again, the root of the problem remains the “desire” on the part of the user, to achieve an altered state through the use of cocaine, heroin or any other narcotic.
How does the concept of the vaccine address this specific issue regarding addiction? One argument states that the vaccine will allow the “patient” to have the time to “wean” his/her brain off the drug. The brain will adjust to NOT having the substance (cocaine/heroin etc.) in its system and then will “rewire” itself back to a state in which it is no longer looking for that toxic infusion. This approach sees addiction as a disease comparable to other medical conditions that can be treated through drug therapy. A diabetic can live a healthy life as long as the insulin need is compensated for. Polio is preventable as long as a drug vaccine is introduced to the system at an early age – this applies to small pox and the mumps as well. But is addiction the same thing? Should we accept the scientific suggestion that addiction can be “cured”? This is in contradiction to the basic tenants of most addiction treatment programs being employed today. According to AA and NA, there is no “cure” for cocaine addiction or heroin addiction or alcoholism. There is a means of treatment that addresses the issues that relate to living a “sober” life, but there is always an emphasis on the need to avoid thinking that there is a cure by which the addict no longer has to be vigilant in his/her lifestyle environment regarding the dangers of temptation and relapsing. The psychological component of this “disease” is related to the initial indulgence that leads the individual down a path whereby they are unable to “function” without the aid of a shot of alcohol, a line of cocaine or a syringe full of heroin. It is this dual nature of addiction that seems to be the most troubling aspect regarding the search for a “cure”. The evidence suggests that there is a medical condition that afflicts some individuals more than others in terms of their dependency on drugs and their ensuing addictions. But there is also evidence that the medical condition is not purely a physical situation – addicts tend to share certain psychological traits that require the kind of therapy provided for by institutions such as Sobriety Home. Abstinence is crucial for both the physicality of the problem as well as the psychological element. If vaccines can aid in the attainment of this abstinence, then they will be providing a great service to the cocaine or heroin addict. But, the long-term recovery that the addict seeks when a decision is made to “get better” will require more than just the vaccine – it will still need to involve the proven therapeutic approaches that are practiced in rehab centers and addiction clinics throughout the world. There is no quick and simple method to recovery – it necessitates an individual’s commitment to do whatever is necessary to get “sober”. Bring on the vaccines, but in conjecture with the proven methodologies that have saved so many lives.
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