Pioneering Scripps scientist devotes a lifetime to addiction vaccines

To hear Scripps' Kim Janda tell the story, the science behind the quest for a new vaccine to fight addiction is so simple even a child could understand. But like many scientific quests in biopharma, he's had to devote his career to find real therapeutic candidates that can work in humans. And he's still looking.

The key challenge, he tells The New York Times in an in-depth article, is that the immune system can't recognize the tiny molecules that invade the body when you introduce methamphetamines, cocaine or nicotine. So his solution is to attach a hapten to a protein and then add an adjuvant, so the stealthy drug molecule starts to look more like the Orient Express to the immune system. The body would naturally produce an antibody attack that would blow the drug molecules to bits, preventing addicts from ever feeling their effects.

The same approach, he says, could be used to block ghrelin, a peptide hormone that tells the brain that the body is hungry, offering a new approach to fighting obesity.

Janda's 27-year saga has been widely followed in the field of addiction vaccines, earning some big grants and exciting a number of developers with the promise of new products. Last summer he grabbed headlines again with the results of a rat study showing the effectiveness of a heroin vaccine. The problem, as he tells The Times, is that so far none of his programs have survived Phase III, and most never made it past proof of concept. And he's had a hand in setting up more than one company. One of his developers spent $60 million with no success. Another failed after it was sold for $95 million.

Now he spends his time in the lab, tweaking his vaccines and hoping that one of the biotechs coaxed into the field can succeed. "I figure I have 8 or 10 years left," he tells the Times. "If something doesn't go in 8 or 10 more years, then it's someone else's turn."

- here's the article from The New York Times