By DOUGLAS QUENQUA
Published: October 3, 2011
SAN DIEGO — Imagine a vaccine against smoking: People trying to quit would light up a cigarette and feel nothing. Or a vaccine against cocaine, one that would prevent addicts from enjoying the drug’s high.
Though neither is imminent, both are on the drawing board, as are vaccines to combat other addictions. While scientists have historically focused their vaccination efforts on diseases like polio, smallpox and diphtheria — with great success — they are now at work on shots that could one day release people from the grip of substance abuse.
“We view this as an alternative or better way for some people,” said Dr. Kim D. Janda, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute who has made this his life’s work. “Just like with nicotine patches and the gum, all those things are just systems to get people off the drugs.”
Dr. Janda, a gruff-talking chemist, has been trying for more than 25 years to create such a vaccine. Like shots against disease, these vaccines would work by spurring the immune system to produce antibodies that would shut down the narcotic before it could take root in the body, or in the brain.
Unlike preventive vaccines — like the familiar ones for mumps, measles and so on — this type of injection would be administered after someone had already succumbed to an addictive drug. For instance, cocaine addicts who had been vaccinated with one of Dr. Janda’s formulations before they snorted cocaine reported feeling like they’d used “dirty coke,” he said. “They felt like they were wasting their money.”
It’s a novel use for vaccines that has placed Dr. Janda, who is 54, in the vanguard of addiction treatment. Because addiction is now thought to cause physical changes in the brain, doctors increasingly advocate medical solutions to America’s drug problem, leading to renewed interest in his work.