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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 8th February 2012

Something strange is going on in the world of addiction medicine. I can’t explain it so I’ll have to restrict myself to reporting it.

Reports from Mexico, originally picked up by Spanish language media in the USA and then appearing in English, say that the government’s National Institute of Psychiatry has patented a vaccine against heroin.

Fox News Latino headlines its story ‘Breakthrough Vaccine Could End Heroin Addiction’ and the story reached the UK’s Daily Mail as 'Vaccine to beat heroin addiction 'is just five years away''.

Both stories say that Mexico's Health Secretary Salomon Chertorivski had announced that the Government had patented the treatment after successfully testing it on addicted rats. His announcement came during a visit to the border town Ciudad Juarez, an area that, according to Diego Valle saw 2,738 drug related homicides in 2010. I mention that because Mexico is heading towards presidential elections so, I think, you have to be sensitive to the possibility that the announcement was intended to offer hope that the horror that is life on the Mexican/American border may have a happy ending.

The timing is, certainly, of interest. In April 2006, the journal vaccine contained a paper from researchers at Mexico’s National Institute of Psychiatry entitled ‘A novel bivalent morphine/heroin vaccine that prevents relapse to heroin addiction in rodents’ and it is, presumably, that work to which the Minister referred. I’ve haven’t seen any more recent published work on the topic but I did find the full patent documentation. This says the patent was filed in July 2005 and published on 30th August 2011. Why has it taken from the end of August until February for this achievement to be touted? The reports say his visit was part of the launch of a technology transfer programme with the USA so, perhaps, he wanted to show that the flow of discovery is not, exclusively, north to south.

There’s an interesting difference between Fox News and the Daily Mail as to the significance of the story. The former reports the Minister as saying ‘Before human testing can be done though, there must be another five years of work on the vaccine’ whereas the Daily Mail states ‘A vaccine against heroin addiction could be ready for human use in just five years’.

It is often said that morphine was isolated from opium by scientists looking for a treatment for opium addiction. Though that is almost certainly not the case, it is true that, when morphine was being viewed as a panacea, there were those who promoted its use to treat addiction. It does seem that the discovery of diacetylmorphine was made by a London chemist, C. R. Alder Wright, who was searching for a cure for morphine addiction but, again, it is not clear whether he believed this was a cure or was simply an incidental discovery. Certainly, when the Bayer Laboratories developed Alder Wright’s work and patented ‘Heroin’ it was as an analgesic rather than an addiction treatment.

I’ve even heard it suggested that cocaine was first extracted from the leaves of Erythroxylum coca as a cure for morphinism but, again, it seems that its use for that purpose commenced after its discovery and did not drive the discovery process.

It’s common to think that we are much more knowledgeable than our ancestors and that we no longer make the foolish mistakes they made by failing to understand enough about how things work. I certainly hope that Mexico’s researchers are giving due consideration to what unexpected consequences there might be as a result of altering the brain’s functions to make it suppress addictive cravings.