Nicotine Vaccine Could End Addiction
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nearly 3,000 teenagers start smoking every day. Of that number, one-third will die prematurely from tobacco-related disease.
But what if a simple shot could prevent a lifelong addiction to nicotine?
The shots are being tested now, and if approved, would be marketed for all ages.
Could the vaccine prevent people from becoming lifelong smokers or simply create a false sense of security?
Stephanie Williams-Baldwin has been smoking for more than 30 years.
"I wish every day that I could stop smoking," she said.
It's a habit she hopes her 12-year-old daughter never picks up.
"I am very fearful that my daughter may become a smoker," she said.
But a new nicotine vaccine that is being tested is offering hope to parents. Makers of NicVAX say the shot could not only help smokers quit, but also keep teens from ever getting hooked in the first place.
"This is a huge, huge opportunity to make an impact on people's lives that have been centered around nicotine addiction," said David Gury, president of Nabi Biopharmaceuticals, which makes NicVAX.
Here's how the addiction starts. When you smoke, nicotine goes straight to the brain, causing a high that keeps you coming back for more. But the vaccine creates antibodies. Acting like a sponge, they soak up the nicotine before it ever gets to your brain.
"You don't get that feel goodness that nicotine provides you when it gets into the brain," Gury said. "So, if you stop that process, it should help you stop smoking."
Clinical safety trials of the vaccine are being funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, where the battle against teen smoking is a top priority.
"It's a big, big problem for us," said Dr. Glen Hanson, acting director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "We have got to get hold of that problem early on in individuals' lives and find effective strategies for treating these people."
Phase 1 of the clinical trial of NicVAX began on June 12, and is testing the safety of the vaccine on people. The first trial involves 20 people between the ages of 18 and 60. While the study remains blinded, the company says preliminary safety assessments indicated no safety concerns. The company anticipates development of NicVAX will take several years of clinical trials to determine safety and efficacy and gain Federal Drug Administration approval. In studies of laboratory animals, NicVAX reduced nicotine levels in the brain by up to 64 percent.
Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the idea of the nicotine vaccine is interesting, but they're concerned it could send kids the wrong message: That as long as you don't get addicted, it's OK to smoke.
"There's always a real great concern that we could have more kids experimenting with cigarettes because they could feel lulled into a sense of security," said Dr. Terry Pechacek of the CDC.
According to the CDC, cigarettes contain more than 250 toxic compounds, and more than 60 specific carcinogens, which the CDC characterizes as a dangerous soup of chemicals.
While the vaccine may keep teens who do experiment from getting addicted, the CDC said it won't shield them from the dangers of smoking.
"They're being exposed to high levels of carcinogens," Pechacek said. "This is a really unnecessary exposure to large numbers of people to very dangerous chemicals."
Young people like Jasmine Baldwin, 12, say the nicotine vaccine won't protect against peer pressure.
"A lot of people my age end up smoking because they think it's cool, and they think everybody's smoking, even though it's not cool. It hurts you and other people," Baldwin said.
Makers of the vaccine admit it won't actually keep young people from smoking. But they say it will make it easier for them to walk away from the habit.
"It has an opportunity of preventing addiction," Gury said. "When it's no longer cool to smoke, you can stop."
"Vaccines are a novel way of getting at a very difficult problem," Hanson said.
It's enough to give Williams-Baldwin hope that her child won't go down the same road as she did.
"I would like to know that there is some other option out there for her that I didn't have," she said.
So far, makers of the vaccine say results of the clinical trials are encouraging. But the vaccine is still several years away from being proved safe and effective. In the meantime, health experts at the CDC say parents are ultimately the best weapons against teen smoking by sending kids clear messages early on that cigarettes are a dangerous choice.