Chemists at The Scripps Research Institute have found evidence in laboratory studies that the immune system may be able to recognize methamphetamine and boost tolerance to the drug through an unusual vaccine-like mechanism. Their finding, if confirmed in human studies, could help explain why chronic users go on long binges with the illicit drug, also known as speed. The study could lead to new treatments for the drug’s addiction, they say.
Recent studies by others have documented the drug’s apparent ability to suppress the immune system, making abusers more vulnerable to diseases such as HIV. The new study is the first to suggest that the drug can engage the body’s defense system to attack methamphetamine in such a way that makes users inclined to use more of the drug, the researchers say. Their study, which paints a clearer picture of the drug’s effect on the immune system and its potential for abuse, was described today at the 229th national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society. "Test animals injected with methamphetamine actually developed antibodies to the drug, which is highly unique for a molecule of its relatively small size," says study co-leader Kim Janda, Ph.D., a chemist at Scripps in La Jolla, Calif. Developing antibodies to the body’s invaders, such as viruses and bacteria, is normally a good thing and forms the basis of modern vaccines, he explains. But ironically, people who abuse methamphetamine may build up antibodies to the drug itself, so they require increasing amounts to get high, resulting in binging behavior, he says. "Without knowing it, they’re essentially vaccinating themselves against the drug, and that’s not a good thing as it requires more of the drug to get high," says Janda. His findings were first reported in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the Society’s peer-reviewed journal.
In a test tube study designed to simulate the chemical reactions that occur with the drug when it enters the bloodstream, the researchers showed that methamphetamine reacts with glucose and proteins to form a larger-size "glycated" product. This product is then recognized by immune system components, stimulating the production of antibodies to the drug. In follow-up studies using mice, those injected with the drug developed antibodies to it. "Antibodies are usually produced only in response to large molecule invaders such as proteins, not to small drug molecules," Janda says. "Glycation acts like a linker that allows [the methamphetamine] to be displayed to the immune system, triggering a vaccine-like reaction."
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