Groundbreaking Gene Therapy Could Be Future Cure For Cocaine Relapse

By McCarton Ackerman 10/21/16

Researchers hope that the gene therapy will be paired with counseling to help substance users avoid relapse.

Groundbreaking Gene Therapy Could Be Future Cure For Cocaine Relapse

Although viruses have a negative connotation, a new research project has shown that they can be part of a breakthrough treatment for cocaine addicts looking to avoid a relapse.

The findings, published in the latest Journal of Neuroscience, came from researchers at Medical University of South Carolina. Using a technology called “designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs” (DREADDs), the scientists used viruses to insert a special gene that made receptors grow on the surface of neurons and respond only to a single drug. By doing this, the emotional responses to “drug cues”—or memories and other stimuli that trigger drug cravings—was blunted.

The gene therapy was successfully used on lab rats in the study. Researchers taught the rats to associate cocaine availability with lab-controlled cues, then took away the drugs and implemented the therapy. When given drug cues, the treated rats relapsed less. By stimulating a part of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the findings show that activating this brain region could deter relapses even when addicts are presented with these cues.

“This new approach for treating drug addiction is exactly what is needed because it is targeted to a specific circuit in the brain regulating addiction,” said co-author Peter W. Kalivas, MUSC Department of Neuroscience chair, in a statement from the university.

Fellow study co-author Jamie Peters, a professor in the MUSC Department of Neuroscience, said in a statement that she was confident “certainly within my lifetime I would expect to see these virus-mediated gene therapies start to be used in the brain, in a neurosurgical setting. You can envision a person ultimately taking a pill to activate this very specific part of his or her brain.”

Avoiding relapses is especially crucial for cocaine users. A July 2013 Huffington Post article from David Sack, M.D., CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, noted that “if an addict goes back to the same dose they used prior to rehab, they are at high risk of fatal overdose.”

But despite this, relapses are highly common in this population. Data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that among the 1.5 million cocaine users ages 12 and older who manage to get clean, approximately 40 to 60% will relapse at some point.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.