According to Centers for Disease Control, there are an estimated 1.5 million cocaine users in the United States and an estimated 5000 to 6000 deaths annually due to cocaine abuse. A number of different medications are available for treating cocaine withdrawal symptoms and there are also a number of therapies, groups and programs designed to alter the behavior of individuals who have cocaine use disorders.
Nonetheless, dealing with an addiction and remaining abstinent is extremely difficult even for the most committed recovering addict. With this in mind, there’s now been an attempt to develop a vaccine that can potentially negate the effects of drug use—in this case, cocaine—which would make abstinence much easier for those in recovery.
Work in Progress
The idea of a vaccination for cocaine abuse is not a new one. Previous research has delved into the feasibility of the concept but the results were never as good as researchers hoped.
In the latest approach to cocaine vaccine development, a bacterial protein known as flagellin is used to trigger the immune system and attack the drug if it is detected in the body. Cocaine molecules are then inactivated and the person loses much of the effect they expect from taking the drug. Currently, the research has just been applied to mice but it has shown promising effects.
What This Means
If a vaccination is indeed developed, individuals will no longer experience the “high” as intensely or at all when using cocaine. It is believed that this will potentially help individuals with cocaine use disorders remain abstinent. The key here is that if this approach is successful it will most likely be very specific to the drug the individual is being vaccinated for, and not for other drugs of abuse. That is, individuals will theoretically still be susceptible to the effects of other types of drugs.
In addition, this vaccination does not "cure" the individual of their addiction; it simply mutes the psychotropic effects of the drug so it is no longer experienced by the individual. Quite a bit of effort has gone into this approach and it theoretically appears to be a sound approach based on both biological and psychological principles. The idea is that if there is no reinforcement for using the drug, people will no longer use it.
Though the research is exciting, the trials are still in the very early stages and factors such as possible side effects, its potential effectiveness on humans and other unknown complications can very easily derail this line of attack on cocaine use disorder. Since a number of different strategies using vaccinations have already been scrapped and research has been going on for some years now, it appears it will be some time before any vaccination will be available for use in humans. Nonetheless, investigators continue to follow this line of research hoping to make recovery from cocaine use disorder more successful.
 Martell, B. A., Orson, F. M., Poling, J., Mitchell, E., Rossen, R. D., Gardner, T., & Kosten, T. R. (2009). Cocaine vaccine for the treatment of cocaine dependence in methadone-maintained patients: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled efficacy trial. Archives of general psychiatry, 66(10), 1116-1123.
 Lockner, J. W., Eubanks, L. M., Choi, J. L., Lively, J. M., Schlosburg, J. E., Collins, K. C., ... & Janda, K. D. (2014). Flagellin as Carrier and Adjuvant in Cocaine Vaccine Development. Mol. Pharmaceutics, 12(2), 653–662.