A Boston-based 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, Langer and his colleagues believe it can be targeted in the same way a virus is targeted. 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.