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Drugs. 2003;63(4):341-52.

Vaccines against drugs of abuse: a viable treatment option?

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  • 1Laboratory of Behavioral Neuroscience, Department of Psychology, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA.


Drug addiction is a chronically relapsing brain disorder. There is an urgent need for new treatment options for this disease because the relapse rate among drug abusers seeking treatment is quite high. During the past decade, many groups have explored the feasibility of using vaccines directed against drugs of abuse as a means of eliminating illicit drug use as well as drug overdose and neurotoxicity. Vaccines work by inducing drug-specific antibodies in the bloodstream that bind to the drug of abuse and prevent its entry into the brain. The majority of work in this area has been conducted with vaccines and antibodies directed against cocaine and nicotine. On the basis of preclinical work, vaccines for cocaine and nicotine are now in clinical trials because they can offer long-term protection with minimal treatment compliance. In addition, vaccines and antibodies for phencyclidine, methamphetamine and heroin abuse are currently under development. An underlying theme in this research is the need for high concentrations of circulating drug-specific antibodies to reduce drug-seeking and drug-taking behaviour when the drug is repeatedly available, especially in high doses. Although vaccines against drugs of abuse may become a viable treatment option, there are several drawbacks that need to be considered. These include: a lack of protection against a structurally dissimilar drug that produces the same effects as the drug of choice;a lack of an effect on drug craving that predisposes an addict to relapse; and tremendous individual variability in antibody formation. Forced or coerced vaccination is not likely to work from a scientific perspective, and also carries serious legal and ethical concerns. All things considered, vaccination against a drug of abuse is likely to work best with individuals who are highly motivated to quit using drugs altogether and as part of a comprehensive treatment programme. As such, the medical treatment of drug abuse will not be radically different from treatment of other chronic diseases.

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