If You Give A Mouse A Cigarette…
chances are, he’ll end up needing a vaccination to go with it.
Wednesday morning on Minnesota Public Radio, Ron Crystal, chairman and professor of genetic medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, said scientists there have created a “vaccine” that prevents nicotine addiction in mice. Traditional vaccines work by introducing a weakened form of whatever virus you are trying to fight into the body, where antibodies are created, building an army of specially built combatants that engulf and eliminate the vaccine’s virus from the vaccine, but also any future viruses of the same type which one may pick up at school, work, the playground or the grocery store. The nicotine vaccine is different. It is a gene therapy that alters the liver, causing it to produce antibodies targeted to pick up nicotine in the bloodstream before it reaches the brain. Nicotine is addictive because it sets off fireworks in the pleasure center of the brain. No pleasure? No addiction.
In the course of the interview, the vaccine was described as both a measure to prevent addiction and a treatment for already addicted individuals. Laboratory mice addicted to nicotine were given the vaccine and over a short period of time stopped “smoking.” (I don’t know how the nicotine was administered; I presume there was a lever pressed somewhere. I can’t help picturing a group of mice huddled outside a non-smoking laboratory puffing away on cigarettes and grumbling, “WTH? Why isn’t this thing working?”) Presumably, the mice still crave the nicotine, but when the behavior isn’t rewarding, they quit the behavior. Crystal says that in terms of nicotine addiction, mice and human behaviors are very similar (again, I am picturing mice outside bars and restaurants, perhaps wearing smoking jackets.) No booster shots are needed to re-energize antibody production, because the altered liver will continue producing the antibodies. For life.
And this is my point. If there is a substance so destructive and yet so addictive that people would be willing to permanently alter their bodies at a genetic level just to help them stop consuming it, knowing they will still crave it for the rest of their lives, that says something. To me it says, “screw the vaccination, I will be declining tobacco in the first place, thank you.” (Growing up in a smoking household provided me with enough aversive experiences that I was never interested in smoking…until I hit my forties. There is something about surviving four decades of people-pleasing that makes me, in theory, want to light up. I liken it to flipping the world the bird. Now I have to work on a backup plan.) In the interview, the potential of parents choosing to inoculate their children was discussed as an ethically problematic issue. (I cannot imagine doing such a thing–performing an after factory add-on to prevent my child from engaging in a voluntary behavior, but there is no doubt in my mind that there are parents out there who would be eager to do so. People are doing crazier things to their children with less reason all the time: botox, overdoing it, etc.) Researchers are hopeful about expanding their results to other drugs like meth and cocaine. Now the issue gets grayer. There are stories upon stories of cases where “good parenting” and “a supportive environment” weren’t enough to prevent people from becoming dependent on drugs. If I had witnessed my own brother’s death spiral into meth addiction, would I inoculate my children to protect them and give me peace of mind? These are decisions my children may have to make someday, not me. (Am I alone here, or does it seem like the world is a game that gets progressively harder as time goes on? We don’t “pass the test,” we just move on to the next level.) I feel like we would be okay if we just keep creating smarter and more resilient children, and provide them with a culture that offers them enlightenment and a society that offers them opportunity. I know the evidence shows this isn’t completely realistic, but we can try. Let’s keep the gene therapy as Plan B for now, okay?