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Help for Two Major Epidemics

Two of our major health epidemics are AIDS and smoking (which leads to heart and respiratory illnesses, as well as cancer). Now a U.K. company has developed a vaccine that helps people quit smoking. And genetically-modified bacteria are being developed that can form a "living condom" to fight off the HIV virus.

Xenova invented the vaccine to help cocaine addicts, and found it also stops nicotine from entering the brain. If smokers don't get their "hit" from cigarettes, they're more likely to quit, although social situations also compel people to smoke.

Young children could be given the shot, along with their other vaccinations, so they won't take up smoking in the first place. "You can imagine it being used by parents of adolescents, who might want their children to be protected against a drug-taking habit," says Dr. Campbell Bunce. "That is something with ethical considerations that we would have to consider."

Researchers have been trying to develop a vaccine against the HIV virus that causes AIDS, but have not been successful because viruses tend to mutate, so a vaccine soon becomes ineffective. But they may be able to create genetically-modified vaginal bacteria that can act like a "living condom."

Philip Cohen writes in New Scientist that scientists have been working on a chemical condom, but have found that these damage the mucus membranes of the vagina. Researcher Peter Lee thought it might be possible to create a GM version of the bacteria that's already present in healthy vaginal membranes. This bacteria already fights off microbes, although it's not effective against HIV. He says, "The trick is to empower them to fight a particular microbe even more effectively."

Researcher Alan Lee says, "If the system works, you can put other genes in like antibody genes or other microbicides," meaning no more bladder or yeast infections?the bane of some women's lives.

"Living condoms" will be especially important in countries where men refuse to wear condoms or where they're in short supply. But will countries like Zambia, which has rejected shipments of GM corn, even though people are starving, accept GM vaginal bacteria? "We've thought about that," says Lee. "We hope preventing HIV infection is a situation where the benefit to risk ratio is so high, that it would overcome those objections."

Leave cigarettes and sex behind, and find a good guru?just make sure he doesn't break your heart.

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