The race for a smoking wonder drug has major pharmaceutical companies and small startups competing to make nicotine addiction as treatable – and lucrative- as erectile disfunction, high cholesterol and acid reflux disease.

In a marketplace dominated by nicotine patches, gums, lozenges and sprays, researchers see great promise for a nicotine-free way to stop smoking addiction at the chemical level.

“It’s the biggest addiction market there is,” said Dr. Herbert D. Kleber, a psychiatry professor and addiction researcher at Columbia University. “Is it realistic to be able to help addicts stop smoking and remain off with a pill? I think the answer is yes and we’re working on a number of them.”

While patches and gums help wean smokers off cigarettes by slowly reducing their dependance on nicotine, researchers are tailoring drugs to mimic or block nicotine’s chemical reactions with the body.

In Connecticut, researchers at Pfizer Inc. identified a brain receptor that nicotine binds to and designed a drug, varenicline, that latches to the same site. Varenicline is in Phase III testing, normally the last step before a company applies for approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Researchers hope that with the chemical reaction complete, the overpowering cravings won’t kick in when patients stops smoking. And if they do reach for a cigarette, the drug will be sitting in nicotine’s favorite parking spot, lessening its effect on the brain.

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