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Groundbreaking treatment could be the end of cocaine addiction

Cocaine addiction affects more than 2 million people in the United States and leads to 500,000 visits to emergency rooms every year.

That’s according to Dr. Ronald Crystal, the principal investigator and chairman of the Department of Genetic Medicine at Weill Cornell. In order to address the epidemic, Weill Cornell and NewYork-Presbyterian have developed a vaccine to blunt the effects of cocaine and thus make it less appealing to addicts. On Monday, they announced that the US Food and Drug Administration has allowed a clinical trial to move forward for study in humans.

“The vaccine develops antibodies against cocaine. These antibodies are like little Pacmen. If you snort some cocaine, these little Pacmen are floating around in the blood and they grab onto the cocaine and prevent it from reaching the brain so they don’t get a high,” Crystal told Yahoo Finance.

Crystal has been working on the vaccine for the past 10 years. Whereas drugs like methadone are designed to treat heroin addiction, the US Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve a drug specifically to treat cocaine addiction.

Starting Monday, Weill Cornell and NewYork-Presbyterian are looking to enroll 30 active cocaine users in a randomized control study to test how the vaccine works with people, after finding it prevented the drug from reaching the brain in earlier animal studies. Participants will have to give up cocaine for at least 30 days. There will be a placebo group in addition to the vaccinated group. Crystal’s hypothesis is that the vaccinated people will stay off of cocaine while those who didn’t receive the vaccine will start using the drug again.

When asked how cocaine addicts can be expected to stay sober for 30 days, Crystal says he’s confident enough people will want to participate. They are considering a broad range of cocaine users, from those who take it every day to others who just do the drug on the weekends.

“The phones are ringing off the hook,” he says. “Cocaine addicts want to quit. [The drug is] highly addictive but they want to quit. And many of them can quit for a month or two but then they go to a party and snort a little cocaine and get addicted again. We can find people who are willing to stop for 4 weeks.”

The study is fully funded by the National Institutes of Health and National Institute on Drug Abuse. Participants will also be compensated for their time and travel, receiving $25 per visit.

Because the Phase I Clinical Trial is just kicking off, the ultimate cost and frequency of the vaccine remains unknown. For now, they’ll be expecting participants to get the vaccine once a month.

“We’re doing it that way to make sure it works,” Crystal says. “Assuming it does work once a month, we can back off and do it less often and see if that works as well.”

Crystal hopes this is a step closer to addressing cocaine addiction because there simply has been no alternative until now.

“There’s nothing out there. People who are addicted to cocaine are desperate so if it works that would certainly help them get off cocaine,” he said. “It’s very similar to thinking about cigarette smoking and nicotine addiction. People want to stop.”

Melody Hahm is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Read more of her work:
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