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Smoking vaccine takes new approach

Raafat Fahim is president and CEO of Nabi Biopharmaceuti- cals.
Raafat Fahim is president and CEO of Nabi Biopharmaceuti- cals. (Courtesy Of Nabi Biopharmaceuticals - Courtesy Of Nabi Biopharmaceuticals)
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By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 23, 2009

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

Now, a small Rockville company is hoping it can make millions of dollars by creating a vaccine for people who want to kick the habit. Nabi Biopharmaceuticals, which is in the late stages of testing its experimental vaccine, called NicVax, took a big step toward its goal last week by striking a deal with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.

Under the agreement, GlaxoSmithKline will pick up the cost of developing and marketing the vaccine if Nabi successfully completes the Phase 3 trials now underway.

"GSK is one of the preeminent pharmaceutical companies with worldwide commercialization reach," Raafat Fahim, Nabi president and chief executive, said in a conference call with investors last week. "GSK has particular strength in the development and marketing of both vaccines as well as smoking-cessation therapies."

For many years, the standard treatment for breaking a smoker's dependence on nicotine has been patches or gum that contain declining dosages of the substance in an effort to wean addicts off their dependence.

Nabi's experimental vaccine, a decade in the works, tries a more direct approach: It shuts down nicotine's access to the brain. Smokers may light up a cigarette while on NicVax, but if the drug works as intended, they won't feel any of 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," Fahim said.

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 H. 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."

Cheryl Healton, president and chief executive of the American Legacy Foundation, a public health nonprofit, said it's the long-term effects of NicVax as a smoking cure that make it revolutionary. Smokers don't usually quit successfully on the first try -- on average there are eight to 11 failed attempts, she said.


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