January 6, 2008

Hey! We Just Now Invented A Cocaine Vaccine 9 Years Ago

Ah, what science really needs is a Madison Avenue publicist.

As you may have heard (from the Jan 1, 2008 Houston Chronicle:)

The needle may be one of addiction's enduring symbols, but two Houston researchers hope injections of modified cocaine actually provide the first-ever medication for people hooked on the destructive drug.

Sorry, I mean this article from the Jan 2  AP:

(AP) Two Baylor College of Medicine researchers in Houston are working on a cocaine vaccine they hope will become the first-ever medication to treat people hooked on the drug.

Hmm.  That's weird.  Similar phrasing and word choices.

Certainly the internet is ablaze with discussion about the clinical and ethical repercussions.  Slashdot, aka "If You Don't Use Ubuntu You Probably Voted For Bush" had more comments (713) about this article than any other that week. 

While the comments were (mostly) intelligent, no one thought to ask why this story appears now.

Especially since this vaccine has been in active investigation since 1999.  And, especially since there isn't one cocaine vaccine, but three completely different ones by different groups.  So much for "first-ever."  Why didn't those groups get news coverage?  Are the Baylor guys that far ahead?

Every new source (e.g. Wired) used either the Houston Chonicle or the AP version of the story, which isn't atypical-- but what about other countries?  What about the BBC, surely they must have their own reporters on the case?

No.  The only articles on BBC come from 2002-2004-- years when there were no U.S. news stories about the cocaine vaccine.  (There was a Scientific American story in 12/04.)  Why the oceanic divide in reporting, if this is relevant to people everywhere?

Follow the trail:

  • 1996: cocaine vaccine was developed by ImmuLogic (defunct), announced in Nature.
  • 1999: sold to Cantab Pharmaceuticals
  • 2001: Cantab merges into Xenova
  • 2005: Xenova bought by Celtic Pharma (really a private equity firm, that also holds the nicotine vaccine.)

ImmuLogic and Celtic are U.S. companies; Cantab and Xenova are British. 

It couldn't be that simple, could it? 

A possible explanation for the similar phrasing and word choice is plagiarism, but that's unlikely; a more plausible explanation is that both articles drew from a prepared statement supplied by the lab/company.

Could company publicists have called up the relevant news outlets at various times to let them know of their "new" drug?  Looks that way.

But why now?

From the Chronicle:

Kosten, who joined Baylor 18 months ago, asked the Food and Drug Administration in December to green-light a multi-institutional trial to begin in the spring.

Sorry, I meant:

(AP) Kosten asked the Food and Drug Administration in December to green-light a multi-institutional trial to begin in the spring and is awaiting a response.

I certainly can't blame the companies or Kosten for the maneuver, if that's in fact what they did.  A little public pressure on the FDA may be just the thing to sway votes.

Hell, I wish it worked on the Federal Reserve.


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