Vaccine may help smokers kick habit

Smokers have tried a long list of ways to quit: cold turkey, counseling, gum, patches and more.

Now, a small company is hoping it can make millions of dollars by creating a vaccine for people who want to kick the habit.

Nabi Biopharmaceuticals of Rockville, Md., which is in the late stages of testing its experimental vaccine, took a big step toward its goal last week by striking a deal with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.

GlaxoSmithKline will pick up the cost of developing and marketing the vaccine, called NicVax, if Nabi successfully completes the Phase 3 trials now under way.

Nabi's experimental vaccine, a decade in the works, shuts down nicotine's access to the brain. Smokers may light up while on NicVax, but if the drug works as intended, they won't feel the stimulating effects they crave from nicotine.

NicVax causes the immune system to create antibodies that bond with the nicotine molecule if it enters the bloodstream. The result is a molecule too large to pass along to the brain. In short, the vaccine seeks to make the body immune to nicotine.

If smokers can't get a buzz from lighting up a cigarette, the thinking goes, there's no reason for them to continue the habit. Since the antibodies created by NicVax stay in the body for a long period of time, the chances of a smoker quickly returning to the habit are low.

"It breaks the cycle of addiction," said Raafat Fahim, Nabi president and chief executive.

So far, the vaccine has completed its early and middle rounds of testing. The company plans to have the results of its recently commenced final round in 2011.

"At first blush, it sounds crazy," said Norman Edelman, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association. After all, creating a vaccine against a small nicotine molecule is a large challenge, he said, "but it's not beyond the realm of belief."