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Feature Story

Health Center Today, June 21, 2010

Investigational Smoking Cessation Vaccine Study

By Carolyn Pennington

Photo of Coach Calhoun on a bike

Dr. Cheryl Oncken

More than three million Americans stop smoking each year, but because of the addictive nature of nicotine, most have a hard time kicking the habit for good.

Helping smokers end their addiction is the goal of an investigational vaccine being studied at the UConn Health Center. NicVAX, manufactured by Nabi Biopharmaceuticals, is an investigational vaccine against nicotine.

Here’s how it works: When you smoke a cigarette, nicotine enters your blood and spreads throughout your body. In the brain, nicotine attaches to receptors, releasing chemicals that cause the addiction.

"Nicotine is very small and therefore the body can not make antibodies against it on its own," explains Dr. Cheryl Oncken, an associate professor of medicine and the principal investigator in the clinical study. "However, when nicotine is attached to a large protein that stimulates an immune response, your body is able to “see” nicotine and make antibodies against it."

According to the manufacturer, when you are injected with NicVAX, your body makes antibodies to nicotine. With each additional shot, your body gradually makes even more antibodies.

"So when you smoke and nicotine gets into your blood, the antibodies you now have in your blood will bind to the nicotine, making a larger molecule," says Oncken. "This molecule is too large to enter into the brain so it’s thought that preventing the nicotine from entering the brain may break the addiction."

"The goal of the vaccine is to generate antibodies to nicotine that will gradually reduce the amount of nicotine your brain sees over time, making it easier for a person to quit smoking," adds Oncken.