Scripps Research Institute scientists develop antidote for cocaine overdose

He notes that such a treatment could be useful not only in reducing the immediate effects of an overdose, but also in preventing near-term relapses. “A lot of people that overdose end up going back to the drug rather quickly,” Janda said, “but this antibody would stay in their circulation for a few weeks at least, and during that time the drug wouldn’t have an effect on them.” Likewise, this antibody could be administered to patients in addiction recovery or detox programs as a prophylactic treatment to supplement other medications, such as antidepressants, and counseling. An acute relapse during this recovery period would be immediately nullified by the antibody dose that is already in circulation.


The new cocaine vaccine works similarly to snakebite anti-venom. When injected, cocaine-specific antibodies swiftly removed cocaine molecules from the bloodstream, immediately limiting the drug’s direct impact on the heart and other vital organs. Importantly, researchers found that this process lowered the bloodstream concentration, allowing cocaine molecules - which are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier - to rapidly diffuse out of brain tissue and potentially limit its damage.

In active vaccines, antibodies bind to circulating cocaine molecules in the blood and prevent these drug molecules from reaching the brain, making the user feel no pleasurable effects. However, it can take weeks to build up enough antibodies to be effective. Dr. Janada and his colleagues have also been working on antidotes for other powerful and potentially lethal drugs like heroin, nicotine and the so-called date rape drug Rohypnol, but they are all been active vaccines.

The research in the paper “An Antidote for Acute Cocaine Toxicity” was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health and Scripps Research’s Skaggs Institute of Chemical Biology.

Cocaine (benzoylmethylecgonine) is a tropane alkaloid obtained from the leaves of the coca plant as a colourless crystalline substance. The name derives from “coca” to which is added the suffix -ine representing alkaloids chemical speaking. Cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant, appetite suppressant, and a topical anaesthetic. It is more specifically a serotonin–norepinephrine–dopamine reuptake inhibitor (also known as a triple reuptake inhibitor) and is commonly used as a drug of abuse. It mediates functionality of those three neurotransmitters affecting the mesolimbic reward pathway in the brain.


Mika Ono
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Scripps Research Institute

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