Four years ago, the startup Nabi Biopharmaceuticals began testing a promising nicotine vaccine called NicVax with the aid of $4.1 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health. Earlier today, the vaccine received a booster shot: Nabi signed a $540 million licensing deal with pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline and is starting Phase III clinical trials.
Now that the smoking rate in the U.S. is on the rise again for the first time since 1994, Nabi's timing couldn't be better. (A CDC report released last Thursday showed the smoking rate in the U.S. has risen slightly in the past year, from 19.8 percent to about 21 percent, or roughly 63 million people.) The vaccine works by making the recipient produce antibodies that bind to nicotine in the bloodstream, thereby preventing the addictive chemical from reaching nicotine receptors in the brain—that's right, our brains have specific receptors for nicotine (we have receptors for opiates and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, too, but that's another story). Their hypothesis: no nicotine in the brain, no nicotine addiction.
Vaccines are typically used to confer immunity to disease-causing pathogens, such as the H1N1 virus that causes swine flu, so the idea of using them to treat addiction is not exactly in the mainstream. But, providing the vaccines are effective, it's easy to see why addiction researchers might find treatments like NicVAX appealing. For one, there's no risk of dependency or side effects. And treating addiction with vaccines could prove more cost effective than more traditional pharmaceutical treatments. Researchers at the National Institute for Drug Addiction have been developing a vaccine to treat cocaine addiction (like NicVAX, it works by making recipients produce an immune response to cocaine), although those studies are still in the early stages.
On October 29, Nabi announced late stage Phase II trials, which established the safety of the vaccine. Now, with GSK's support, the company will begin Phase III trials, which will evaluate how effective NicVAX is at helping patients quit smoking. It may be years before the vaccine is commercially available. But so far, studies indicate NicVAX is well tolerated in humans, and Nabi says a statistically significant portion of the hundreds of patients who have tried the vaccine stayed cigarette-free for up to a year.