IRA FLATOW, HOST:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Stroke, kidney failure, seizures are some of the devastating effects of a cocaine overdose that kill thousands of people each year. But new research has created hope that a cocaine overdose antidote may soon be available for doctors who administer in emergency situations.
In a study published in the American Chemical Society journal Molecular Pharmaceuticals, researchers say they have developed an injectable solution that reverses the effects of a lethal dose of cocaine, at least it does so now in mice.
Dr. Kim Janda was a co-author of the study and has worked on vaccines for heroin, meth and even nicotine. He's professor in the Department of Chemistry, Immunology and Microbial Science at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, and he joins us from there. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Hello, Dr. Janda, are you there? Having trouble hearing? Dr. Janda, can you hear us?
DR. KIM JANDA: Hello?
FLATOW: Hello there.
JANDA: I can't hear the show, but I can hear you.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FLATOW: All right, we're going to have to work out our technical difficulties. Maybe we can push a button and make something happen so that Dr. Janda can hear us.
JANDA: Or just press go.
FLATOW: Or press go.
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FLATOW: Dr. Janda, can you hear us?
JANDA: Yeah, I can hear you now.
FLATOW: OK, that's better. I love live radio. Thanks for taking time to be with us today. Tell us about this vaccine. This is a potential antidote. Are you saying that in mice, when the mice had a cocaine overdose, you were able to reverse the effects of it?
JANDA: Yes, that's correct. Basically when they given a lethal dose, we were able to use a pre-formed antibody and inject it, and basically the mice didn't die from the overdose, they all lived.
FLATOW: What was working there? How does it work?
JANDA: Basically it seeks out cocaine very quickly, sequesters it and removes it from the body.
FLATOW: And is this the same kind of thing that might be possible in humans?
JANDA: Well, that's what we're working towards. The antibody that we've prepared is what's known as a human monoclonal antibody versus a mouse monoclonal antibody. So we were gearing everything towards trying to move into clinical trials.
FLATOW: And so what are the next steps here?
JANDA: The next steps would be able to make it efficiently in large quantity and then test it out in some type of human trial.
FLATOW: Is it possible you might be able to create a vaccine that's used beforehand?
JANDA: Well, we and other groups have looked at what's called an active vaccine for treating cocaine addiction, but the differences between that and what we're using with what's called a passive vaccine for overdose is that the active vaccines take weeks to get onboard, and they never reach what's called an antibody titer that would be high enough to protect from a cocaine overdose.
So this is in the same genre but a little bit different venue, how we're setting this up.
FLATOW: You have been looking at vaccines for addiction, have you not?
FLATOW: Tell us about that search and what the difficulties are in that.
JANDA: Well, we've been looking at vaccines for cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, nicotine addiction for well over 25 years, and while many years ago we used to think treating one addiction, one drug addiction is similar to treating another, it's not, and so we found the path to be quite difficult at times, depending on the particular drug we're working with.
FLATOW: So they all have different pathways of working, and that...
JANDA: Well, they all have different - they work differently, you know, in terms of the receptors they hit, in terms of how they're metabolized in our body and how they interact with our body's tissue. So each one is a very different animal in trying to attack.
FLATOW: Is this something that a drug company would be interested in developing, if you found some research or did some of the basic research?
JANDA: I really wish it would, but I think a lot of big drug companies don't feel that drug addicts are a great investment. So they've kind of shied away from looking at therapies for addiction. I wish they would get more involved, that's for sure.
FLATOW: Well, what about something for an overdose? You don't have to be a drug addict to have an overdose.
JANDA: That's for sure. And what we really think this overdose, if it would be moved forward with a company, would be packaged as a shot to have on - hands on, you know, with an ambulance or ER clinics for, you know, life or death situations.
FLATOW: Doesn't it raise some ethical concerns about having an antidote?
JANDA: I don't think an antidote raises the ethical concerns. The ethical concerns would be more raised with what's known as the active vaccine, which basically requires multiple injections, and you have circulating antibodies for life in that potential individual.
So, you know, one could be potentially marked that you had that vaccine. The antidote vaccine we're developing now would be eliminated in the body within a matter of days.
FLATOW: So it is possible you could create sort of a prophylactic vaccine?
JANDA: It's possible, but for the active vaccines, yeah, that's correct.
FLATOW: Is there a lot of research that's going on in this field?
JANDA: There is. It's sparse. There are some groups that have been working in this for a number of years, but like I said, it's - the research requires a lot of different initiatives. So it's not something that a group who's just doing chemistry or immunology can do. You have to kind of meld together chemistry, immunology and neuropharmacology to kind of look at this overall process.
FLATOW: And is there great interest? You say there might be interest if you can develop this in - for people, the drug companies, because it's given later, might be interested in it as opposed to giving, as you say, prophylactics to drug addicts.
JANDA: Well, I think both are quite appealing. I think for, you know, an immediate situation, the antidote is obviously much more appealing, but, you know, in terms of long-term maintenance and abstinence for possibly treating cocaine addicts, I think the active vaccine would be the best way to go.
FLATOW: What about other habit-forming drugs or dangerous drugs? Does this open the pathway for antidotes for them also?
JANDA: Sure, I think one can look at this for heroin and other drugs like that, maybe methamphetamine. I think that looking at this overall methodology, would be useful for those types of drugs also, even possibly things like Oxycodone.
FLATOW: Oxycodone, yeah, that - you say you could possibly do it with that.
JANDA: I see no reason why not.
FLATOW: And as far as human clinical trials, when might they start?
JANDA: Well, I think if we can, like I said, make it more efficiently in large quantities, then hopefully we can see someone step up to the plate who would want to partner with us and move this forward.
FLATOW: Well, good luck to you, and thank you very much for taking time to be with us.
JANDA: OK, thank you for having me on.
FLATOW: Dr. Kim Janda is the co-author of the study in the American Chemical Society journal Molecular Pharmaceuticals about a potential treatment for overdoses of cocaine and who knows what other kinds of drugs. He's a professor at the Departments of Chemistry, Immunology and Microbial Science at the Scripps Research Institute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.