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Extending your life, extending your career: A vaccine for smokers?

New therapy may help police officers quit tobacco

Some people are more prone to addiction than others, but if you’re one of those that claims to be completely immune to it, you probably just haven’t found the right drug yet. Most cops are more than familiar with the effects of addiction to drugs of abuse and alcohol, and swear that sort of demon will never seize control of them. At the same time, many are addicted to a legal drug — nicotine — that can be among the hardest to kick. Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York may have developed a vaccine to help nicotine addicts quit for good.

Most nicotine users, whether they get their dose through cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or chew, start their habit trough social pressure. Someone they admire or want to align with smokes or dips, so they do, too. The association with social and daily living activities makes it a tougher addiction to break, as users often have daily rituals that involve tobacco. They smoke a cigarette when they have their morning coffee, or take a work break, or after sex. They put in a plug of chew when they meet with friends or work colleagues.

Every time they engage in that associated activity, their brain tells them, “I want some.” Nicotine cravings are especially strong and long-lasting.

Nicotine is a different sort of addictive drug because it acts as both a stimulant and a relaxant. One of the body’s first reactions to a dose of nicotine is to release glucose from the liver and epinephrine from the adrenal glands above the kidneys, improving mental focus and alertness.

Within a few moments, it has also extended the effects of dopamine in the brain, producing a relaxing sensation and increasing sensitivity to brain reward systems, priming the brain for even more good sensations. It also suppresses appetite in most people. Many nicotine users experience weight gain when they quit the drug.

Hazards associated with nicotine use include lung, throat and mouth cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases such as emphysema. There have been other nicotine-addiction-fighting vaccines in the past, but they wore off after a short time and were expensive. Despite these drugs, the use of antidepressants like Zyban, and attempts to reduce or replace the use of tobacco with patches or gum, 80 percent of users return to the drug within six months of quitting.

How the Vaccine Works
The new vaccine is a different type than has been used for other diseases. Active vaccines, like those for polio and mumps, introduce a virus fragment small enough not to cause harm, but sufficient to stimulate the body to produce antibodies to resist a greater infection. Passive vaccines introduce the antibodies themselves to produce an immune response.

This newest type is a genetic vaccine, a product of molecular biology. It uses engineered nicotine antibodies inserted into a modified virus that targets liver cells. When the virus inserts itself into liver cells, the cells start producing their own nicotine antibodies. These antibodies neutralize the drug as soon as it appears in the bloodstream. The effect is permanent, as the body’s cells have been altered to keep producing the antibodies for life.

The perceived effect, although it uses a different mechanism, is not unlike that of Narcan/Naloxone, used to treat overdoses or heroin and other opium-derived drugs. Narcan attaches itself to the receptor sites of the brain that are specific for opiates, so that the drug can’t act on the brain. The user gradually clears the drug from the bloodstream over time, and even repeated heroin doses have no effect, since the drug’s effects are blocked. Habitual users go into instant withdrawal, so it’s not especially pleasant.

Nicotine users given the new vaccine will have the drug neutralized as soon as they take it in, so they will get no psycho-physiological effect from it. There may still be a craving for some time, but it will subside as the body acclimates to not having that drug on a regular basis. The vaccine could even be administered to people who have never used tobacco, so they would get no reward from using it in the future and would have little incentive to continue use.

As with all new therapies, this one will have to pass clinical trials before it will be available to dispensing. But, within a few years, you may be able to get a single shot that will allow you to quit smoking or dipping. 

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