Most smokers have tried to quit smoking at one time or another. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to break past the addictive qualities of nicotine. New research from the University of Connecticut shows that there may soon be a vaccine to break the addiction and help smokers finally quit smoking.
Biologist Peter Burkhard, associate professor of molecular and cell biology at UConn’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, developed the molecule that is the center of this vaccine. He was quoted in UConn Today as saying, “If you look at the consequences of cigarettes, it’s mind-boggling. Seven million people are killed by the causes of nicotine addiction every year. That’s like wiping out Switzerland, every year.” It was this fact, and many more like it, that convinced Burkhard to begin researching this project nearly 8 years ago.
Smoking can cause anything from lung cancer, oral cancer and some heart problems to severe gum disease, mouth ulcers and tooth discoloration. Most states have anti-smoking programs, but those aren’t always successful.
In order to understand how this molecule works, it’s necessary to first understand how nicotine’s addictive properties work. It begins when a cigarette is smoked and nicotine is inhaled into the lungs. From there it enters your blood stream and travels to your brain. In your brain, it acts as a stimulant and sedative. It releases adrenaline throughout your body, causing the same “feel-good” feelings that are seen in addictions to substances like cocaine and heroin. Based on this knowledge, Burkhard decided to attack the nicotine molecules before they could get to the brain.
He produced a nanoparticle carrier molecule that works nearly the same way that virus immunizations help to affect the immune system. This molecule consists of a foreign substance that, to the body, resembles a virus surrounded with nicotine particles around the outside of the molecule. Because it looks so much like a virus, the body’s immune system will naturally believe it to be a threat and begin to produce antibodies to bind it. This acts in the same way that other vaccines, like the common flu vaccine, stimulate the immune system.
After the antibodies first come into contact with the virus-like molecule, they will continue to bind any other molecule that looks similar. Since the molecule in the vaccine is surrounded by nicotine particles and thus looks similar to the nicotine that comes from smoking a cigarette, both will come under attack by antibodies. This prevents the nicotine from ever reaching the brain and creating the “kick.” Keeping the nicotine out of the brain is intended to essentially stop the addiction.
Why is This Time Different?
This isn’t the first time that researchers across the nation have attempted to create a nicotine vaccine, but most have failed. If that’s the case, then why has this one been successful? The only reason is because this vaccine targets the immune system.
In order to provoke the attention of the immune system, the pathogen must have 3 characteristics, according to the UConn article:
- They must be fragments of proteins (called peptides).
- They are smaller than a thousandth of the width of a single human hair.
- They have the same peptide patterns repeated on their surface..
Another main difference between Burkhard’s molecule and others before him is that his is made purely of proteins, which makes it nontoxic. He received a grant of $2.5 million and 5 years to further develop this vaccine and clinically test it.
This vaccine is intended to help people stop the addiction and will not protect against the dangerous effects of smoking, nor will it work purely on its own to end an addiction. Along with the vaccine, if someone wants to quit they must also be disciplined and make good choices with healthy eating and exercise to help prevent the damaging effects of tobacco use. However, Burkhard’s work could be an integral step in in curbing the addiction and saving countless lives.