Paul Pentel, MD, is the Chief of Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology at HCMC, a member of the Medicine Clinic at HCMC, and served as President of HHRI from 2001-2015. He completed Medical School at Stanford University.
Cigarette smoking remains the single, most preventable cause of cancer deaths in the United States according to the National Institutes of Health National Cancer Institute. At least one-third of all cancer deaths annually are attributed to cigarette smoking, which means that annually there are approximately 200,000 cancer deaths which could have been prevented if smoking weren’t so widespread.
Many smoking-cessation methods are available for smokers who want to quit, including nicotine replacement products such as gum, inhalers, nasal spray, the patch and medications designed to curb cravings for nicotine. If research being conducted at the MMRF proves effective, another approach — immunization — may be available. MMRF researchers are testing immunization as a way of preventing nicotine from reaching the brain which could mean that the smoker would not receive the pleasurable effects of smoking.
HHRI researchers are testing a nicotine vaccine that may be an effective method for preventing and treating tobacco addiction. Nicotine is the main addictive component of tobacco. The purpose of the vaccine is to prevent nicotine from reaching the brain so as to reduce its effects and help keep people from becoming addicted.
When injected in laboratory animals, the vaccine encourages the immune system to produce proteins called antibodies that bind tightly to nicotine. The antibody-bound nicotine is too large to enter the brain, thereby preventing nicotine from stimulating the brain. The antibody-bound nicotine is eventually broken down to other harmless molecules—all without producing the harmful effects nicotine causes.
Although the research is preliminary, the vaccine studies performed on rats are very promising. An article in the Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior Journal reported that the vaccine reduced the amount of nicotine entering the animals’ brains by almost two-thirds. The vaccine also blocked nicotine’s effect in raising blood pressure and it prevented the hyperactive behavior that researchers see when they inject animals with nicotine.
Human trials of the vaccine have begun in partnership with the University of Minnesota.
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