Florida researchers focus on nicotine addiction

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Smokers who want to kick the habit, or at least avoid health problems, may get help through research now being conducted.

Scripps Florida is studying ways to reduce nicotine cravings, the University of Miami is working on research that could kill cancerous cells in the lungs, and Florida Atlantic University is working on ways to make vaccines safer for smokers and those impacted by secondhand smoke.

To boost their work, the Florida Department of Health in July awarded $1 million in grants to nine Florida researchers for tobacco and cancer-related projects, and the National Institutes of Health gave out millions more.

About 80 percent of smokers who try to quit relapse within a year, studies show, despite such help as the nicotine patch, gum, inhalers, cessation classes and prescription medication such as Chantix.

Marianne Conti-Zimmerman, 54, of Boynton Beach, Fla., has been smoking for 40 years and has never quit for than two weeks. She's tried such aids as a patch and a nicotine vapor pipe.

"I know cigarettes are bad. I know what they can do. I know my lungs are in bad shape. I know they smell," she said. "And yet all of that has not been enough for me to say, 'You're not doing this anymore.'"

Scripps Florida, based at FAU's Jupiter campus, has received nearly $3 million in federal grants in 2013 for a variety of research looking for ways to reduce smoking. In one study, the biotech giant has found receptors that can limit nicotine consumption and protect against addiction.

Another Scripps project focuses on developing agents that would change the dopamine in the brain and make it easier for those in recovery, from nicotine or other substances, to stay abstinent.

One lesser known effect of tobacco, both for smokers and those exposed to secondhand smoke, is that it can prevent vaccines from working properly.

Mahyar Nouri-Shirazi, associate professor at FAU's medical school, has received a $149,000 federal grant to test an agent that can improve the effectiveness of vaccines in people exposed to nicotine.

"The ultimate goal of this project is to protect the public health," said Dr. John W. Newcomer, vice dean for research and graduate programs at Florida Atlantic University's College of Medicine.

Florida Atlantic is also involved in several other tobacco-related research projects. Dr. Charles Hennekens of the College of Medicine has performed studies showing smoking is an equal opportunity killer for men and women, and how quitting smoking can reduce the chance of cardiovascular diseases.

Other FAU researchers have studied the links between stress and nicotine cravings as well as ways to reduce smoking among different groups, including college students and Native Americans.

The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine received a $100,000 state grant for research designed to develop an injection with the hopes of killing cancer causing cells in the lungs.

"You do surgery. You do radiation. It just never kills every single cell, and if you can't get rid of that final hurdle, those small number of cells can come roaring back again," said Dr. Geoffrey Stone, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology who works at the University of Miami's Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The plan involves injecting a "cold type virus that just happens to be really good at killing tumor cells" into those with lung cancer, most of whom are smokers or former smokers. The research is being tried on mice now and it could be four or five years before human experiments are used, Stone said.

"I'm hoping this pans out, but it's very preliminary," he said. "At the end of the day, it's too difficult to predict if it's going to be successful."