Recruiting the body's immune system in the fight against drug abuse is a hot topic. A recent piece highlights progress on cocaine vaccines:
The vaccine works by getting the body's immune system to recognize the drug as foreign and attack it in the blood stream.
It does so by injecting an altered version of the drug into the body which has been attached to a protein that the body will recognize as a threat.
Doesn't this sound great? Inoculation against drug abuse? Wouldn't any parent of a pre-teen ask "Where do I sign my kid up?"
I'll plan to get into the science of the "vaccine for drug abuse" in later posts because today I want to touch on the ethical implications a bit. Nevertheless, we need to understand a little bit about the mechanism of action.
Most readers will have a passing acquaintance with the way the body's immune systems work and what typical vaccination against disease is doing. In very brief overview, your immune system learns to recognize foreign and potentially harmful proteins floating around your bloodstream or within your tissues. Typically, said proteins are integral parts hanging off the exteriors of nasty microbes such as bacteria and viruses. Once it recognizes nasty bits, your immune systems can then mount a series of strategies to attack these foreign nasties, degrade them to harmless components and excrete the whole mess.
This process is, most assuredly, a battle. One in which there can be winners, losers and occasionally detente, truces and/or standoffs. Oftimes the outcome is dictated by speed and strength wherein the immune system that can respond more quickly and forcefully than the microbe can gain a foothold in your body wins the day. The trick of vaccination is that your immune systems have a tendency to respond more quickly and forcefully the second (or third or fourth) time they've seen a given nasty compared with the first time. So if you are exposed to an artificially crippled version of the nasty, that still contains the appropriate proteins for immune "recognition", you can avoid the dicey outcome of the first-exposure to that particular bug and skip right to a powered-up and prepared state.
So why don't you get an immune reaction to cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and other "foreign" drugs? Because they are too small for your immune system to recognize under "normal" circumstances. So scientists have taken to linking drug molecules, such as cocaine, nicotine or methamphetamine, to molecules that will engender an immune response. Then, after immunization with these tandem molecules, the immune system is able to recognize the drug molecule alone. So when an immunized person takes cocaine, for example:
"The vaccine slowly decreases the amount of cocaine that reaches the brain," said Thomas Kosten, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who has been working on the vaccine since 1995.
Okay, now we get to the fun part. (Apart from busting Kosten's chops for saying it is the "vaccine" that does the work. It is the immune system, not the vaccine itself.) How would you countenance use of anti-recreational drug immunizations?
Would you recommend it broad-spectrum for all children much like MMR?
Would you recommend parents be permitted to subject their drug abusing teen against his or her will?
Allow the courts to mandate inoculation?
Suppose it were made a condition of employment?