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Nicotine vaccine study brings cautious optimism

Thu., Nov. 8, 2007

ORLANDO, Fla. – A shot that robs smokers of the nicotine buzz from cigarettes showed promise in midstage testing and may someday offer a radically new way to kick a dangerous habit.

In a study, more than twice as many people given five of the shots stopped smoking than those given fewer or phony shots – about 15 percent versus 6 percent after one year.

That is comparable to some other smoking cessation aids currently sold and could be an important new tool for people who have failed to quit on other methods, doctors said.

The results, presented Wednesday at an American Heart Association conference, do not prove the new approach works but encouraged some experts.

“It clearly shows promise” and merits a definitive study, said Dr. Frank Vocci, director of medications development at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which has given $8 million for the research so far.

The study tested NicVAX, a vaccine designed to “immunize” smokers against the rush fueling their addiction. It’s made by Nabi Biopharmaceuticals of Boca Raton, Fla.

The treatment keeps nicotine from reaching the brain, taking some of the fun out of smoking and hopefully making it easier to give up. Some nicotine still gets in, possibly easing withdrawal, the main reason quitters relapse.

This approach – attacking dependency in the brain – is different than just replacing nicotine, as the gum, lozenges, patches and nasal sprays now sold do.

The study involved 301 longtime smokers in Minneapolis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, New York City, Omaha, Neb., and Madison, Wis.

Participants were given four or five shots within six months, at one of two doses, or dummy shots. Neither they nor their doctors knew who got what.

One year into the study – six months after volunteers received the last shot – 14 percent on the lower dose and 16 percent on the higher dose of five shots had quit. Only 6 percent of those given four shots, or the fake vaccine, were off cigarettes.

Getting people to quit smoking “may well be at the top of the list” for improving public health, said Smith. Worldwide, an estimated 1.3 billion people smoke, according to the heart association, and it’s a leading cause of cancer and heart disease.

Others were not as impressed.

“I’m a little underwhelmed,” said Dr. Timothy Gardner, a heart association spokesman and cardiologist at Christiana Care Health System in Newark, Del. “I would think we could expect better” with such a novel approach, and it is hard to understand why five shots worked and four did not, he said.


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