Called NicVax, the investigational vaccine is being developed by Nabi Biopharmaceuticals to prevent and treat nicotine addiction and to help people quit smoking. Normally when a smoker inhales, nicotine is carried by the bloodstream to the brain, where it triggers neuro-receptors to generate positive sensations that can lead to addiction. The vaccine stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies that recognize the small nicotine molecule. Bound to these antibodies, nicotine molecules no longer can cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain.
"With little or no nicotine reaching the brain, smoking is less rewarding. That gives the smoker a chance to change the behavioral and social factors that also influence smoking," said Victor Reus, MD, principal investigator for the study at UCSF.
Because immune antibodies remain in the body for some time, Reus said it is hoped that the vaccine also will prevent relapse. When a vaccinated smoker lights up months after quitting, the person should not experience the nicotine-triggered reward that tempts most people back into the habit.
Northern California smokers over 18 are invited to join a national study to determine whether NicVax can help people abstain from smoking and help them avoid relapsing within the next 12 months. Participation is free and requires a one-year commitment to come to San Francisco for injections and follow-up visits. The study also includes five behavioral counseling sessions. Participants will be paid for each visit and given validated parking at the clinic.