By David Heitz

Anyone who ever has tooted quality cocaine knows how incredibly addictive it can be.

And did you know it also is very dangerous? Heroin overdoses have made us long forget that cocaine used to be the drug everyone in America seemed to OD on.

Cocaine addicts past and present can appreciate, then, a couple of incredible new discoveries.

Might someday we have a cocaine cure?

Scientists at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego have discovered that a molecule called hypocretin may contribute to cocaine addiction. The research was published this year in Biological Psychiatry.

The study showed that, in rats, blocking the molecule could reduce drug-seeking behavior, offering hope for a pharmacological solution to cocaine addiction.

“The more that we learn about the brain, the more that we learn that brain signaling mechanisms that play a particular defined function, such as a role in wakefulness or appetite, often play important roles in other functions, such as addiction,” said professor John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, in a news release. (1)

Cocaine vaccine advancing

Meanwhile, in an unrelated breakthrough in cocaine addiction research, New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City has begun enrolling cocaine addicts in a clinical trial to test the efficacy of an anti-cocaine addiction vaccine.

It would work like opioid replacement therapy and block the high of cocaine.

“Cocaine addiction is a huge problem that affects more than 2 million people in the United States, and results in more than 500,000 annual visits to emergency rooms,” said principal investigator Dr. Ronald Crystal, chairman of the Department of Genetic Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and a pulmonologist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, in a news release. (2)

“While there are drugs like methadone designed to treat heroin, there aren’t any therapeutics available to treat cocaine addiction. We hope that our vaccine will change that.”

‘Gobbling up cocaine like a Pac-man’

The scientists offer a highly technical explanation for how the vaccine works. But in essence, they say, it gobbles “up cocaine like a Pac-man.”

Explains Weill Cornell in the news release, “The dAd5GNE vaccine works by linking a cocaine-like molecule called GNE to a disrupted protein of an inactive adenovirus virus that typically causes cold-like symptoms, and is highly likely to produce an immune response.

“The immune system then unleashes antibodies that attack both the virus and the cocaine-like molecules connected to it. Once the body sees cocaine as the enemy, if the drug enters the bloodstream, the body will respond with a flood of anti-cocaine antibodies, each meant to gobble up cocaine like a Pac-man, Dr. Crystal said.

“This means that if someone who has received the vaccine uses cocaine, within seconds it passes from the lungs to the bloodstream, and once there, the antibodies attack.”

So, when someone takes a toot, the high never even hits their brain.

Pfizer pitching in to help with cancer drug

Finally, a third study of a powerful Pfizer drug already being used in cancer clinical trials has proven to “obliterate cocaine-associated memories and significantly accelerate the end of drug seeking behavior in animals.”

Reported in the American Journal of Pharmacy Benefits, or AJPB, the study shows how the cancer drug blocks cocaine-associated euphoria. Because it already is in clinical trials, it could get to market faster than other anti-cocaine therapies.

“We have demonstrated that a single administration of a trial drug from the pharma company Pfizer can completely obliterate cocaine associated memories and significantly accelerate the end of drug seeking behavior in animals,” said researcher Riccardo Brambilla in the AJPB piece. (3)

“With this drug currently being used in cancer trials, it could be easily repositioned for treatment of cocaine addiction and other drugs of abuse.”

In still another battleground in cocaine vaccine development research, scientists are discovering a way to use a bacterial protein called flagellin to effectively deliver a cocaine vaccine.

“Cocaine abuse is problematic, directly and indirectly impacting the lives of millions, and yet existing therapies are inadequate and usually ineffective,” write the authors of the research published in the journal Molecular Pharmaceutics. (4)

“A cocaine vaccine would be a promising alternative therapeutic option, but efficacy is hampered by variable production of anti-cocaine antibodies,” continued the authors Thus, new tactics and strategies for boosting cocaine vaccine immunogenicity must be explored. “

Do people really still use coke?

Because of the nation’s unimaginable opioid epidemic, we’ve all but forgotten when some programs paid women addicted to crack to have their tubes tied. We’ve forgotten that old slogan, “Crack is Whack,” as it was replaced by “Meth is Death,” and now we have the opioid epidemic.

But yes, people do still use cocaine. And now, some believe it looks more attractive than ever because it has been destigmatized. Both the rise of marijuana acceptance and the diversion of the nation’s attention to opioids suddenly makes cocaine look a tad innocuous to some people.

Don’t be fooled. Cocaine can make a heart race, and even an experienced user can end up in an emergency room, or worse.

Warns the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

“In 2014, according to the NSDUH, about 913,000 Americans met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders criteria for dependence or abuse of cocaine (in any form) during the past 12 months.

“Further, data from the 2011 Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) report showed that cocaine was involved in 505,224 of the nearly 1.3 million visits to emergency departments for drug misuse or abuse. This translates to over one in three drug misuse or abuse-related emergency department visits (40 percent) that involved cocaine.” (5)

Most people are going to know from the moment they do their first line whether they have become (or are going to become) addicted to cocaine.

If they find themselves fascinated by the high from the first snort, they’re hooked.

If they find themselves exuding confidence, having way too much fun (and drinking way too much) at the bar, and then almost falling asleep at work the next day…they owe it to themselves to seek help.


1.Life Sciences Medical News. (2017, March 16). Blocking hypocretin signaling may provide new avenue for treating cocaine addiction, study suggests. Retrieved Oct. 5, 2017, from

  1. Weill Cornell Medicine. (2016, Aug. 8). Anti-cocaine vaccine approved for clinical study in humans. Retrieved Oct. 5, 2017, from
  1. Toich, L. (2016, Sept. 12). Experimental Cancer Drug Could Curb Cocaine Addiction. The American Journal of Pharmacy Benefits. Retrieved Oct. 5, 2017, from
  1. Lockner, J. et al. (2015, Feb. 2). Flagellan as carrier and adjuvant in cocaine vaccine development. Molecular Pharmaceutics. Retrieved Oct. 5, 2017, from
  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2016, May). What is the Scope of Cocaine Use in the United States? Retrieved Oct. 5, 2017, from