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October 22, 2009

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US hopes for vaccines to treat addiction

HOOKED on cocaine or cigarettes? The United States government wants drug companies to make a vaccine for that.

Convinced of the need for new and better treatments for addiction, the government is focusing its efforts on vaccine development as a new way to treat and possibly prevent addiction to a range of addictive substances.

"It's a perspective that is very different from what we've operated on in the past," Dr Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse said this week at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago.

Volkow said the agency intends to piggyback on the frenetic investment by drug companies in vaccine development, spurred by the need for new products and the runaway success of products like Merck's Gardasil vaccine to prevent the virus that causes cervical cancer.

"There is an enormous amount of research and development in vaccines for cancers and a wide variety of disorders," she said. "We can take advantage of those developments."

But first Volkow has to tempt drug companies to develop the vaccines by funding costly clinical trials.

Earlier this month, her agency, part of the National Institutes of Health, awarded Nabi Biopharmaceuticals a US$10 million grant - the agency's largest ever - for a late-stage clinical trial of Nabi's vaccine for nicotine addiction called NicVAX.

Volkow said she did her homework before backing the Nabi vaccine to ensure it was significantly different from other products. "Nonetheless, when you are investing in something at this level, it can be very risky," she said.

The vaccine is meant to stimulate the immune system to make antibodies against nicotine, blocking its rewarding effects and helping to prevent relapse in smokers trying to quit.

A similar anti-smoking vaccine by Cytos Biotechnology and Swiss drug maker Novartis last week missed its main goal in a midstage study, leading some analysts to question whether it can make it to market.

"They are still looking at it but it has been very problematic," said Robert Wasserman, director of investment research at the investment banking firm Dawson James in Florida.

"Vaccines are really tough," he said. "It's not for the faint of heart."

Still, if it works, a nicotine vaccine could have a huge impact, Volkow said. "It's an international problem that kills 5 million individuals every year across the world," she said.

The global market for smoking cessation is expected to reach US$4.6 billion by 2016.


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