New Gene Therapy to Combat Cocaine Addiction

Have you ever tried to cut something out of your diet like sweets or carbs? If so, you understand how difficult it can be to avoid temptation. For people who struggle with cocaine addiction, that temptation can be incredibly difficult, but luckily, there’s a new gene therapy that might soon make that temptation less irresistible.

A group of biologists from the University of Tennessee, who focus on treating and understanding neurological disorders such as cocaine addiction, are researching how genes get turned ‘on’ or ‘off’ and are attempting to use that information to make cocaine less addictive.

In America, cocaine consumption is on the rise, with 2.2 million people nationwide admitting to using cocaine. For the nearly one million trying to quit, the task can be daunting. Even with all the different treatment options, most people who try to quit end up relapsing within a year. One of the reasons why cocaine is so addictive is because it causes such an intense high, which triggers a euphoric feeling and dopamine released in the brain.

Scientists’ Potential Solution

Scientists are attempting to engineer a new version of a human protein that would break down cocaine so quickly that the high is very fleeting, less enjoyable, and therefore, could potentially be less addictive.

The protein is BChE, and all humans have it. This protein helps to regulate neurotransmitters, which break down cocaine very slowly, which makes the high more enjoyable. The newly engineered version of this protein would essentially super-charge the natural protein so that the cocaine would be processed much more quickly, making the high much less enjoyable therefore potentially eradicating the addition entirely. 

Research shows that daily injections of the super-charging protein drastically decreases addiction in mice, however, daily injections for humans would be incredibly expensive and impractical. Researchers are now looking for a way to make the injections in a way where a single treatment would last for the years it takes someone to fully get over a cocaine addiction. One way to do this is gene therapy. Basically, what they would do is give patients a DNA sequence, or gene, that would essentially create this protein, and the body would continue to make it, thus eliminating the need to continue injections.

Now unfortunately, humans can’t just swallow a pill and gain a new gene, so what would need to happen is scientists would essentially insert the gene into a virus called adeno-associated virus, or AAV. The virus would work, not to make anyone sick, but just as a delivery system so that the body would continue to reproduce it. The virus would go into the liver and would remain and continue to get reproduced for months, or even years. It’s still in the early stages of promising tests in mice, but it could be a very hopeful future for anyone who struggles with a cocaine addiction.