There are 19,000 to 20,000 genes in a human. Each gene specifies something about us. Essentially, they are the recipe for an individual person, and gene therapy is one of the most promising fields in experimental medicine. Researchers are just now beginning to learn how powerful genes are and are now developing tools to aid genes.
For instance, if someone has a gene that greatly increases the chances of a disease later in life, gene therapy could isolate that gene, cut out the section that calls for the disease, and replace it with a “correctly” coded section. While implementing this technology in humans is a bit into the future, the knowledge and know-how is growing. With this knowledge, more improvements to treating addiction are being developed.
One specialized type of gene therapy involves introducing a virus into the system that will insert a unique type of gene into the patient. The new gene is designed to make new receptors grow on the surface of neurons within the cells. These new receptors only respond to a single, designer drug. Researchers are hoping that they can use this new virus method of gene therapy to help cocaine addicts overcome one of the hardest parts of a cocaine addiction – cravings. By engineering a person’s DNA to have these new receptors, doctors will be able to give cocaine addicts medicine that is designed to alleviate these strong cravings.
The method is called designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs, or DREADDs, and although it may seem extreme, cocaine cravings are so powerful that some addicts never overcome them. Oftentimes the mere thought of cocaine can send someone into a relapse. And while some drugs produce painful and dangerous physical withdrawal symptoms, cocaine causes intense mental distress.
“This new approach for treating drug addiction is exactly what is needed because it is targeted to a specific circuit in the brain regulating addiction,” said co-author Peter W. Kalivas, Department of Neuroscience chair at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). The research was published in the Journal of Neuroscience. It is showing promising results already, and combined with other treatment therapies and counseling, could be a very helpful tool in the future.