Meth vaccine prospects look 'encouraging' so far, say researchers

Nov. 2, 2012, 11:17 a.m.

Addiction to methamphetamine, the crystal version of which is pictured above, is thought to affect about 25 million people worldwide – 353,000 of them in the U.S. alone. (Psychonaught/Wikimedia Commons)

It's still in the early stages, but researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego are developing a methamphetamine vaccine – and so far, it's looking promising.

A study in Biological Psychiatry details how rats who were vaccinated by the test drug were largely protected from typical signs of meth addiction. If the vaccine works in humans, it may become a huge boon for those who are trying to treat and manage meth addiction.

Estimates pin the number of meth users worldwide around 25 million, and in 2010, the federal government reported there were about 353,000 users of meth in the U.S. alone.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says California saw 92 meth lab seizures in 2011, more than many states but nothing compared to places like Indiana (1,354) or Missouri (2,058). In all, the DEA seized 2,467 kilograms of meth that year – and remember, those statistics only reflect people who were caught.

According to Lieutenant John King with the LAPD's Gang and Narcotics Division, L.A. County is no exception when it comes to a meth problem – the latest data from the county's Department of Public Health shows that nearly 11,000 people were admitted to publicly-funded treatment programs for meth between 2009 and 2010.

"I can tell you it's pervasive, based on the number of cases we do and the seizures we make," he said. "My LAB Squad is seemingly continually dismantling clandestine labs."

King oversees the LAB Squad, which he says is the "only game in town" when it comes to cracking down on illicit drug labs in the county. But the squad isn't dealing with street dealers or users, he explained.

"We're dealing with large-scale narcotics trafficking," King said. "And it seems there is a pronounced area in the southern Los Angeles County area that is particularly high as far as our seizing methamphetamine."

But he noted the problem exists throughout the entire county.

Which suggests that a vaccine that gets rid of a person's addiction to the highly-addictive drug would have big, positive impacts on L.A. County's collective health and public safety. And it would, said King – if people want to get better.

"It all depends really on whether or not people are dedicated to getting rid of their addiction," he said. "Frequently they are not. They enjoy the high that it provides and they seem to pursue that."

Vaccines that work against addictive drugs evoke antibody responses against drug molecules, keeping them from getting into the brain. The user then loses his or her incentive to take the drug because there's no high.

The results of the researchers' latest tests on rats are "encouraging," they said in a statement," and indicate that this vaccine would work "better than other active vaccines for meth that have been reported so far."

The next challenge is making the vaccine more longer-lasting and less expensive for patients – as it stands, the vaccine would cost thousands of dollars per dose, and last a few weeks at most. But researchers are hopeful.

And if it does come through, King will embrace it.

"For those who are serious about getting rid of their addiction, I think that would be a greatly celebrated thing, and I think the police department would be very happy if people were to take advantage of that," he said. "You have to understand that narcotic trafficking is driven by demand, and wherever's there's a demand, there's a supply, because people want to make money.

"Whenever we can reduce the demand for [meth]," added King, "I would say that's a positive thing."

Photo by Psychonaught via Wikimedia Commons.

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