Could a Vaccine Help You Quit Cigarettes for Good?

From birth, vaccines help safeguard our immune system from potentially deadly diseases like hepatitis B, measles, mumps, rubella, etc. But what if a vaccine could protect us from the leading cause of preventable death: tobacco? Researchers all over the world are working to develop such a vaccine.

In a nutshell, vaccines work by warning the body’s immune system of a potential threat. It places a blueprint of the disease on the body’s FBI Most Wanted list – FBI meaning For the Body’s Immunity, of course. After the vaccine’s administration, the body almost immediately responds by creating antibodies against that enemy, so the immune system can be more prepared to attack and prevent illness.

A new vaccine using the same mechanisms may be able to put a new culprit on that wanted list: nicotine.  When nicotine from tobacco products reaches the brain, it causes the release of dopamine in its reward-seeking section, the nucleus accumbens. Dopamine in this area of the brain causes the feeling of pleasure, which is why those who smoke find it very hard to quit.

A vaccine against nicotine would halt its pleasure-giving duties; the antibodies would bind the nicotine and prevent it from entering the brain from the bloodstream. With this effect, current smokers may feel more compelled to quit, and smokers who recently quit may be less likely to relapse.  

Smoking has been labeled as the top cause of preventable death in the world, causing up to 6 million deaths per year. The World Health Organization projects that a reduction in smoking by 50% could save as many as 200 million lives worldwide by the year 2050. Hence, the race to compel smokers to quit continues. Currently, there are many ways to help smokers quit, including nicotine patches, gum and medications that help wean the brain off of nicotine.

Last week, the Cochrane Library published a review of some of the pharmaceutical studies, which included four different preliminary nicotine vaccines. In total, they recruited 2642 smokers and gave approximately half of the smokers the vaccine in development and the other half a non-effective placebo. Disappointingly, after 6 months, the researchers noticed that an average of 11% of the smokers quit in both groups. The current vaccine models had no overall effect.

Though the results may be discouraging, there was a noticeably higher smoking cessation rate for participants who had higher levels of antibodies to nicotine. This means that with the right vaccine formulation, one could induce enough antibodies that would block enough nicotine to help quitters quit for good. Hence, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel – and it may be closer than we think.

Furthermore, no studies have been conducted that show the vaccines’ effectiveness in preventing former smokers from relapsing. Sixty percent of quitters, on average, relapse within the first week of quitting, and over 90% of quit attempts fail.  Would such a vaccine would better serve this population?

The current vaccines in development were designed to be administered once every month for three to four months with subsequent booster shots to keep the antibody levels high enough. So far, no vaccines have been approved for use in the public domain; however, as more research is conducted, there may be a more successful vaccine.

If you’re a smoker, consider Dr. Oz’s Kick the Habit Plan, which includes a day-by-day guide for hurdling through the difficult first six months of quitting.