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SCIENTISTS HOPE NEW VACCINE WILL HELP THWART COCAINE ABUSE

Researchers are developing a vaccine to immunize people against cocaine abuse, somewhat like current vaccines protect against polio, measles and other infectious diseases.

"We are making steady progress," Dr. Donald W. Landry of Columbia University said in an interview Sunday. "Everything is still at an early stage, but the research looks very promising."The potential cocaine vaccine uses substances termed catalytic antibodies, which have been described as biological counterparts of the "smart bombs" used in the Gulf War.

Natural antibodies are proteins, made by the immune system, that help the body destroy bacteria, viruses and other foreign substances.

Landry and his associates have developed synthetic antibodies that recognize and home in on cocaine molecules circulating in the blood. They attach to cocaine, just like natural antibodies attach to disease-causing bacteria.

Then they act as catalysts, triggering chemical reactions that literally blast molecules of cocaine into harmless fragments. The fragments lack cocaine's powerful stimulant effects and do not produce the high that cocaine addicts crave.

Landry, who is both a medical doctor and an organic chemist, envisions administering the vaccine to cocaine addicts in an effort to help them avoid relapses during treatment.

Cocaine users who seek treatment usually want to abstain and can remain drug-free for a few days, Landry explained. But by the third or fourth day they develop an overwhelming desire for more cocaine. At present, there is no drug that can immediately relieve the craving.

Existing treatment involves use of desipramine, an antidepressant medication that can ease craving for cocaine. But it takes several weeks for desipramine to work.