NICOTINE: RJR Developing Line of Drugs
In an attempt to cash in on decades of nicotine research, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings is trying to develop drugs that harness the compound's positive effects on the brain -- without the harmful side effects of smoking, the Wall Street Journal reports. It appears to be ripe terrain: researchers have recently observed that smokers are less susceptible to Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, and have identified which brain receptors are affected by nicotine. Reynolds' new unit, named Targacept, "is competing head-on with drug industry giants to develop" a new class of nicotine-based drugs. At a conference last month, Targacept scientists "presented data showing that one of its patented chemicals, a nicotinic compound dubbed RJR-2403, improved both short- and long-term memory," without the adverse effects of normal nicotine on heart rate, blood pressure and the digestive system. The company signed a marketing and research deal with French pharmaceutical giant Rhone Poulenc SA in February. Targacept already has significant competition in the field, from the likes of Sibia Neurosciences Inc., which just signed a marketing deal with Eli Lilly & Co., and Abbott Laboratories.
Conflict of Interest?
Reynolds spokesperson Seth Moskowitz said, "The reason Targacept exists is the fact that we have a lot of knowledge and expertise on nicotine. We decided it would be worth our while to apply our expertise." But some question RJR's sudden devotion to nicotine's potential in light of a 1996 submission to the FDA that stated the pharmacological effects of nicotine "are not substantial." But Moskowitz said, "We have for a very long time acknowledged that nicotine has mild pharmacological effects, and among those effects are improvements in memory and concentration." Members of the scientific community are split in their opinions of nicotine-based drug development. Neal Benowitz, chief of clinical pharmacology at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine, said, "I support this endeavor 100% and hope RJR moves all its efforts to this area." But Jack Henningfield, associate professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University, said, "How can a unit of a company have a primary goal of health improvement when its parent is Reynolds? I don't understand how they can do that, especially when the parent is creating tobacco addicts." Moskowitz responded, "Targacept is totally separate and apart from our cigarette business. We're not doing any work in Targacept with an eye to applying any of it to our cigarette business." Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reports, the company "is steering clear" of developing products to help smokers quit (Hwang, 6/28).