A novel approach to helping smokers kick the habit – a vaccine – will be tested at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). The nicotine vaccine NicVax is designed to keep nicotine from reaching the brain where it produces its rewarding effects. Earlier studies of the vaccine, which has not yet received FDA approval, have indicated that it is safe and may be effective.
“We currently have several proven ways to help smokers quit – including nicotine patches and gum and the antidepressant bupropion – but if someone using these medications slips and smokes a cigarette, he or she experiences rewarding sensations from smoking,” says Nancy Rigotti, MD, director of the MGH Tobacco Research and Treatment Center, who will lead the study at the hospital. “Since this vaccine keeps nicotine out of the brain, smoking no longer has any pleasurable effects, and the smoker should find it easier to quit.”
Although the immune system does not normally respond to nicotine, NicVax – manufactured by Nabi Biopharmaceuticals, which is sponsoring the current trial – is designed to elicit the production of nicotine antibodies. If someone smokes after being immunized, the antibodies bind with nicotine molecules in the bloodstream and prevent them from entering the brain where nicotine receptors are located.
The MGH is one of 10 centers across the country participating in the current study and is the only location in the Northeast.