Crystal methamphetamine, an illegal and highly addictive drug

Rewriting Life

Gene Therapy Could Help People Overcome Meth Addiction

There are currently no medications available to treat methamphetamine abuse disorders

Nov 17, 2017

Gene therapy, which modifies a person’s DNA, has long been thought of as a way to treat genetic diseases—and, more recently, cancer. But a team at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences thinks it can use this same idea to treat addiction by counteracting the high that methamphetamine produces.

Eric Peterson, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology, and his colleagues have packaged a gene that codes for an anti-meth antibody into an engineered virus. When injected, the therapy makes the body generate antibodies against meth. The antibodies bind to and trap methamphetamine molecules that are circulating in the bloodstream, preventing them from traveling to the brain and triggering pleasurable feelings. In mice, researchers showed that the therapy lasted for over eight months, reducing the amount of meth in the brain and the stimulant effects caused by the drug.

The hope, Peterson says, is that a drug based on the approach could be used with behavior therapies to treat people addicted to meth. If people tried to use meth after they had received the gene therapy, they wouldn’t feel the high they expected.

An estimated 897,000 people aged 12 or older were users of methamphetamine in 2015, according to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Most of those have a substance abuse disorder, a condition in which the repeated use of the drug interferes with a person’s health, work, school, or home life.

Yngvild Olsen, a secretary of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the medical director of the Baltimore-based Institutes for Behavior Resources, says she’s enthusiastic about the research because treatments for meth addiction are needed. But she adds it’s too early to tell how effective this would be in people.

Over the years, there have been attempts to use similar therapeutic approaches for other stimulants—like a vaccine for cocaine. Olsen says these efforts have struggled to make it from animal tests into humans, and a handful of medicines that have been tested in clinical trials haven’t been as effective as they were in mice.

There’s also the potential that people who have received the gene therapy could take more meth to try to feel the high they used to get. That is something researchers running a future clinical trial would have to keep in mind, Olsen says.