How Does the Nicotine Vaccine Work?

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Nicotine vaccines were developed to help people stop smoking, prevent relapse, and to prevent people from becoming addicted to nicotine. Once administered, the vaccine creates antibodies that can block nicotine's effects on the body.

Four vaccines have been tested in clinical trials, though none are currently approved for public use. None of the vaccines are proven to help long-term smoking cessation. However, researchers agree that a vaccine to prevent nicotine's effects could benefit people who are motivated to quit smoking.

How It Works

When you smoke a cigarette, the nicotine travels from your lungs, into your bloodstream, and eventually reaches your brain. Once it reaches the brain, it increases the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine (known as the "feel-good" hormone).

Dopamine produces feelings of pleasure and well-being, which is one of the reasons smoking is so addictive—over time, you need to smoke more to feel these sensations.

A nicotine vaccine would create anti-nicotine antibodies that bind to the nicotine molecules, making them too large to reach the brain. If nicotine doesn't reach the brain, no dopamine is produced. Without dopamine, people wouldn't experience the same pleasurable effects of smoking.

Researchers believe that blocking nicotine from reaching the brain would break the link to physical addiction.

Nicotine vaccines were designed to prepare people to quit smoking and prevent relapse in people who have already quit.

Some research suggests that a vaccine might work as a preventative to smoking, too. For instance, someone who smokes occasionally (but is not yet addicted) might receive a vaccine to prevent addiction.

Are the Vaccines Effective?

The four nicotine vaccines that are currently being developed have shown moderately successful results when it comes to smoking cessation. For the vaccine to be successful, it needs to produce a high number of anti-nicotine antibodies.

Overall, the studies on nicotine vaccines have shown they are effective in the short term for preventing people from smoking. It's not yet proven that these vaccines can prevent smoking in the long term.

All four vaccines have been tested on people who currently smoke and are attempting to quit smoking. The effectiveness of the vaccines is measured by whether or not participants abstain from smoking after receiving the vaccine.

TA-NIC

TA-NIC was developed by Celtic Pharma, which is based in the United Kingdom. In a phase I clinical trial, participants who were trying to quit smoking and received the TA-NIC vaccine had a 95% success rate. Phase II results have not yet been made available.

Nic-Qb

This vaccine was developed by Cytos Biotechnology in Switzerland. It didn't show significant smoking abstinence rates among all participants in a phase II study.

However, participants who developed the highest levels of anti-nicotine antibodies had much better results. Among them, 56.6% were able to abstain from cigarettes as opposed to only 31.3% of the placebo group.

NicVax

This vaccine is from Nabi Pharmaceuticals based in the United States. One study showed that people who were vaccinated with NicVax received higher levels of anti-nicotine antibodies, and were more likely to stop smoking and remain smoke-free.

Niccine

Researchers at Sweden's Independent Pharmaceutica developed Niccine. Abstinence from cigarettes did not differ between participants who received Niccine and those who received a placebo.

Potential Drawbacks

There are certain limitations to the current nicotine vaccines. These will likely be taken into consideration by researchers as new versions of the vaccines are developed.

Antibody Response

Nicotine vaccines are most effective when they produce a "sufficient antibody response." Without enough anti-nicotine antibodies in a person's system, they aren't likely to benefit from the vaccine's full effects.

Research has indicated ways that may be able to help produce enough of these antibodies. The vaccines can be made more potent by adding "novel carriers" which would produce a higher immune response.

Bimonthly booster shots may also be necessary to improve the number of antibodies in a person. However, increasing the number of doses of the vaccine may increase the risk of negative side effects.

Cost

Research suggests that the nicotine vaccines wouldn't be cost-effective for the average person and that the vaccines are unlikely to be publicly funded. One study estimated that the cost would be more than $70 per vaccine.

If bimonthly booster shots are required, the cost could quickly escalate. However, it's important to keep in mind that the vaccines aren't licensed yet—the cost could change by the time the vaccines are ready for public use.

Risk of Relapse

Ideally, a nicotine vaccine would prevent relapse in people who've already quit smoking. For instance, if you inhale secondhand smoke, you may be less likely to crave a cigarette if the antibodies from the vaccine block nicotine's effects on your body.

However, the formation of the antibodies is estimated to take more than two weeks. This is generally longer than it takes for many people who've quit smoking to experience a relapse. So a relapse may occur faster than it takes for you to be fully protected by the vaccine.

Side Effects

The side effects of the nicotine vaccines were mild to moderate. Some participants experienced "flu-like" symptoms like chills, muscle aches, headaches, and fatigue. Another potential side effect was a mild skin reaction at the injection site.

As the vaccines continue to develop, the newer versions may not have these same potential side effects.

Other Ways to Quit Smoking

Nicotine vaccines might be available in the future to help people quit smoking, but there are plenty of other methods of quitting. You can choose more than one method, mixing and matching until you find what feels best.

  • Ween off of cigarettes: If you gradually reduce the number of cigarettes you smoke per day, you may reduce the severity of nicotine withdrawal symptoms.
  • Join a support group: A support group can motivate you to quit smoking and help keep you on track. You may find it's helpful to hear other people's stories about quitting smoking and to share your own.
  • Try counseling: Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners offer one-on-one counseling to quit smoking.
  • Dial a quit-line: All 50 states offer quit-lines. According to the American Cancer Society, people who use quit-lines are twice as likely to quit smoking for good than people who don't use quit-lines.
  • Download a quit smoking app: You can set your quit date as well as receive messages of encouragement to stay smoke-free from a quit smoking app.
  • Medication: Your doctor might recommend medication to quit smoking such as Zyban (bupropion) or Chantix (varenicline).
  • Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT): Like the weening method, nicotine replacement therapy administers small doses of nicotine but without the other toxins in cigarettes. It comes in lozenges, patches, gum, and more. It may help ease the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.

Remember, the support of your family and friends is important, too. Share your goal to quit with loved ones. Show yourself compassion along the way by rewarding yourself every day you stay smoke-free.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

A nicotine vaccine could be an effective option for people who want to quit smoking, prevent a relapse of smoking, or avoid nicotine addiction in the first place. But further developments are needed in order for any nicotine vaccine to be approved for public use.

In the meantime, there are a number of options that can help you quit smoking. Talk to your doctor to find the best ways for you. Quitting smoking can be challenging, but with the right support systems, it is achievable.

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