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A Boston-area startup is pursuing an unorthodox approach to helping smokers quit—it’s attempting to make the world’s first successful nicotine vaccine.

The company, Selecta Biosciences, was cofounded by MIT engineer Robert Langer and Harvard immunologists Ulrich von Andrian and Omid Farokhzad. Its goal is to develop a treatment that deprives a smoker of the habit’s addictive effects by inducing an immune response that can last several years.

While nicotine is not a virus, it can be targeted in the same way a virus is targeted, Langer and his colleagues believe. Selecta uses synthetic nanoparticles to prompt the immune system into creating specialized antibodies that bind to nicotine molecules, making the nicotine molecules large enough to initiate an immune response. Antibodies instigated by the nanoparticles automatically attach to the surface of the modified nicotine molecule because their shape fits exactly. The resulting supersized nicotine compound is thereby prevented from crossing the blood-brain barrier and delivering the normal smoking kick.

In the past year, Selecta’s nanoparticles have been tested in the lab; now the company is testing the safety of the nanoparticles in people, in a Phase I trial.  

Selecta’s nicotine vaccine is the most advanced example of its effort to make custom vaccines with engineered nanoparticles. These synthetic vaccines should be quicker to make in large quantities than conventional vaccines, and therefore cheaper. Selecta also hopes to develop immune-based treatments for ailments and illnesses, including malaria, that currently lack such treatments.

Since Selecta’s approach removes nicotine before it can cross the blood-brain barrier, it differs from other smoking aids, which interfere with the craving for cigarettes by delivering nicotine in another manner, such as a patch.

Even though Selecta’s vaccine has no biologically based equivalent drug to compete with, it nevertheless will have to overcome plenty of hurdles. To be considered effective in clinical trials, the treatment will have to cause some people to quit altogether, rather than simply reducing their smoking. 

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Credits: Technology Review, Conor Myhrvold

Tagged: Biomedicine

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