Consider the excitement over cocaine vaccines. Composed of a bacterial protein plus a molecule that is a coke look-alike, they train the immune system to produce antibodies against both. The antibodies also bind to cocaine, preventing it from entering the brain and causing a high. The good news is that the vaccine makes crack less pleasurable, notes Meg Haney of Columbia University, who led a 2010 vaccine study. That suggests the vaccine indeed kept the drug out of the brain. The bad news is that the level of antibodies in the volunteers (55 coke users in a 2009 study, 10 crack users in Haney’s) varied widely. Only 38 percent of the coke users produced enough antibodies to dull the effects of cocaine, and, of those, only half stayed clean more than half the time.
In contrast, a 2008 analysis of 34 studies of behavioral treatments for addiction to cocaine, marijuana, and other drugs showed impressive efficacy. “There is still no generally effective [medication]” for coke, pot, and meth addictions, notes psychiatry professor Kathleen Carroll of Yale University. “But the behavioral therapies we have are quite good,” bringing a 67 percent improvement. Yet that research gets the response of the proverbial tree falling in an empty forest.