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Could a vaccine be used to treat addiction? One expert’s perspective

Over the holiday weekend, Stanford professor and Scope contributor Keith Humphreys, PhD, discussed in the Wall Street Journal the possibility of treating addiction with a vaccine. After referencing a groundbreaking 2009 study that showed an anti-cocaine vaccine reduced cocaine use among participants, Humphreys wrote:

Treating addiction with a vaccine strikes most people, including many of my colleagues in the field, as radical. For other addictions (to nicotine, alcohol and opiates like heroin) the approach has been very different: The pharmacologic breakthroughs have come from medications that alter neurochemistry to reduce cravings or block the rewarding effects of drugs at particular receptors in the brain. Billions of dollars have been spent trying to develop similar medications for cocaine and methamphetamine addiction, but the results have been disappointing. A vaccine to combat addiction to these drugs would work as soon as the drug enters the body, before it has a chance to exert its powerful effects in the brain.

A vaccine would not be a magic bullet; it couldn’t stand on its own as a solution to cocaine and methamphetamine addiction. Cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy and 12-step groups have been shown to reduce stimulant drug use in rigorous research studies. Another approach using small, prompt rewards contingent on stopping drug use—rewards like meal vouchers and movie tickets—has been shown to be effective both in health-care settings and in the criminal justice system. But like everyone else in the addiction treatment field, I know that these approaches aren’t always helpful and might become more effective if combined with a medical approach.

Previously: Can an antidepressant help meth addicts stop using? and Addiction: All in the mind?
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