Frustrated by the high relapse rate of traditional addiction treatments, scientists are working on a strategy that recruits the body's own defenses to help addicts kick drug habits.
The new approach uses injected vaccines to block some addictive substances from reaching the brain. If a vaccinated addict on the path to recovery slips and indulges in a drug, such as tobacco or cocaine, no pleasure will result.
"You still have to mentally say to yourself, 'I'm not going to do this,' but it's so much easier to say it when you know if you light a cigarette, you're not going to get any pleasure out of it," says Stephen Ballou, a 56-year-old banker who got a nicotine vaccine in a 2007 clinical trial to help kick his pack-a-day habit. He says he hasn't smoked since.
Some medications currently available to treat addictions typically work by mimicking a drug in the brain. For example, methadone stands in for heroin and the nicotine patch for cigarettes. Other medications block activity in the brain's reward system. Alkermes Inc.'s once-monthly Vivitrol injection does this for alcoholics and opioid addicts, while Pfizer Inc.'s Chantix pills block the brain's pleasure receptors activated when people smoke.
Small-molecule drugs like Chantix that function inside the brain can raise safety concerns. Chantix carries a federally mandated warning to users of possible depression and suicidal thoughts. A spokesman for Pfizer notes that no causal link between Chantix and such symptoms has been made.