University of Cincinnati researchers have developed an immunotherapy that could be the first FDA-approved medication to block the effects of cocaine.

Cocaine has increasingly played a role in the opioid and heroin epidemic nationally. It’s often a secondary drug choice of those who use heroin and prescription painkillers, which are synthetic opiates.

Andrew Norman, a professor in the department of pharmacology and cell biophysics at the UC College of Medicine, has led the development of an antibody that can block cocaine’s effects on users.

“This will not be a magic bullet,” Norman said. But, he added, the injectable antibody would help reduce cocaine cravings, making it less likely for a cocaine user to continue taking the drug.

“It will help keep people that are motivated to stay off cocaine do so by making sure any relapse event does not lead to a sustained relapse event,” Norman said. “If people are not highly motivated to quit cocaine, there is no reason that this will be helpful.”

An antibody is a blood protein that fights a specific antigen. This one, when injected into the bloodstream, attaches to cocaine and prevents it from entering the brain. The research team has had success with its testing on animals.

Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco, Hamilton County’s coroner, said last week that her office is seeing “huge” increases in cocaine use and has had deaths involving the drug.

The use of cocaine and its cheaper derivative, crack cocaine, is common throughout Ohio. In June, the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services issued its latest report on drug abuse trends, noting that “crack cocaine is almost as available as heroin in most areas.”

The report stated that cocaine was highly available in the Cincinnati region, which included Hamilton, Butler, Warren and Clermont counties. The study of this region was taken from focus groups with people in recovery who’d taken part in programs in Hamilton and Warren counties. The report noted that one person said of powdered cocaine, “I can’t stop at a gas station without someone trying to sell it to me.” Crack cocaine had appeared to increase in availability over the previous six months, with one study participant stating, “It is on every street corner.”

The cocaine-specific antibody that Norman’s team has developed can help prevent cocaine’s effects for an extended period. It would be “given in doses that would remain effective for at least 30 days,” he said.

“This is a major national need,” Norman said.

The research is paid for by a $6.28 million, three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Toxicology studies and a second round of tests in animals are needed before applying to the FDA for human clinical trials. These studies should be completed within a year. Norman hopes the FDA will then approve human studies that can be started in 2018.

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