COMMENT – The overlooked complexities of vaccinating against addiction

Last week research was published which identified the qualities of a ‘novel’ vaccine intended to help combat cocaine addiction.  As the week progressed various online magazines and newspapers picked up on the story and a steady trickle of articles were released. Some of these articles exaggerated the significance of this research, while others misinterpreted the novel elements of the new vaccine.  These inaccuracies and the general poor quality of media coverage inspired this blog post.

Stock photo of cocaine, as featured in all articles. Useful for those among us who were unaware cocaine is a white powder.

First things first, I should begin by explaining a little of the theory behind vaccinating against addiction.

The vaccine combines elements of the common cold virus with cocaine surface proteins (antigens). This combination allows the immune system to recognise cocaine and develop antibodies which will bind with molecules of cocaine. When the immune system recognises cocaine at a future event, it will be quickly bound by antibodies. This antibody and cocaine combination will be unable to pass from the blood into the brain, and as such will not induce a stimulatory effect.

In short, for up to 13 weeks after vaccination, cocaine users will experience no high or feelings of euphoria. It is hoped the absence of stimulation (not getting high) will prevent recovering addicts, who are struggling with cravings, falling from their detox wagon.

So far trials have been limited to studies with mice, but researchers believe the vaccine will quickly progress to human trials.

A ‘Novel’ Vaccine

While elements of this vaccine are original, care should be taken when interpreting the term ‘novel’.

One online science magazine claimed ‘the first ever vaccine for drug addiction has just been created’ (these spurious claims were given greater credence when referenced by The Washington Post).  In reality this week’s press release represents the latest breakthrough in a long and well documented history of research. Several teams from across the globe have been studying this type of vaccine for over a decade (simply type ‘cocaine vaccination’ into Google). So, while it is true there is currently no approved vaccine against addiction, this latest breakthrough is a refinement of an established idea and not its inception.

In fact, the novel aspect of the vaccine is the coupling of the cocaine surface protein and the cold virus. This combination produces a stable vaccine that induces immunity for up to 13 weeks, reducing the need for expensive repeat injections.

Don’t believe the hype

There is no disputing the benefits of a vaccine which helps addicts on their long road to recovery. However, the majority of media outlets (each of the 8 stories I read) failed to grasp the complexity of addiction and the difficulty in overcoming both the physical and mental aspects.  Reports either stuck closely to the initial press release or were quick to hail the new vaccine a cure-all.

Removing the physical rewards of drug abuse is not a panacea for addiction. A spokesperson for Drugscope outlined the complexities of overcoming addiction.

“A lot of cocaine addicts have complex social and psychological issues. Once one drug stops working, if these underlying issues aren’t addressed, people may move on to another drug that does.”

Lesley King-Lewis, chief executive of Action on Addiction, expressed similar concerns when asked about earlier developments in vaccinating against addiction.

“Other forms of support would also be necessary for cocaine addicts giving up, as it is more than just the physiological addiction that causes people to use again. Craving is a very complex issue that won’t necessarily be solved with a pharmacological intervention.”

There is no denying the potential value of this latest research. However, poor and unimaginative journalism has turned good science into tabloid trash and recycled press release rhetoric.

My lament was inspired by an article from the astute blogger and journalist Martin Robbins.

#update Time magazine’s article is a good example of how this story should have looked (15/01/2011).

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