Big Pharma and Big Tobacco share the same bed

Back in the 1950s U.S. researchers began testing on a high blood pressure drug called mecamylamine, known today as TC-5214. The drug didn't do much to lower blood pressure. So what the heck, they gave it to children with Tourette's syndrome.

(Don't ask me why they gave it to kids with Tourette's.)

Of course, mecamylamine didn't help the Tourette's symptoms. But researchers did notice that the children who took mecamylamine had a slight improvement in their depression symptoms.

Now, jump forward to the mid-1980s. (This is where Big Pharma comes in.)

In the mid-1980s, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company spent lots of money to develop "safer" cigarettes. A man named Donald deBethizy ran the R&D department. Specifically, he oversaw research into the effects of nicotine on the body.

Over many years, RJR scientists learned a lot about the body's nicotine receptors. For instance, when your body's nicotinic receptors get over stimulated, you're prone to depression.

The RJR scientists started tinkering with other compounds that could affect nicotinic receptors. They wanted to find something that would give you all the benefits of nicotine (such as increased alertness) without the negative effects of cigarettes.

That's when RJR researchers stumbled across the hypertension drug from the 1950s. That drug, the researchers discovered, relaxes your brain's nicotinic receptors. Because of this, they believed they had a new depression blockbuster on their hands.

The RJR scientists started to pour all their energies into mecamylamine research. They soon spun off from RJR to form a subsidiary called Targacept. And in 2000, they broke off entirely from Big Tobacco with $30.4 million in venture capital money.

And guess what Targacept is now developing?

Yes, they gave up on the "safe" cigarettes. Now, they're in the "safe" drug business. They acquired the rights to mecamylamine and its name. Now, they call it TC-5214.

In fact...

TC-5214 already made it through some early-phase clinical trials. As a result, stock prices for Targacept more than tripled in value at one point.

At this stage in the game, Targacept's future depends on the performance of TC-5214 in five late-stage clinical trials. If it does well, experts expect Targacept's stocks to skyrocket by 100 to 200 percent. In addition, you can pretty much guarantee the FDA will approve TC-5214 for depression.

Why TC-5214 should really scare you

Without a doubt, TC-5214 has a checkered history at best. But you want to know what should really scare you the most about this new drug?

It could be about as dangerous as they come.

You see, most new depression drugs on the market increase serotonin. But TC-5214 is different. It works just like the old high blood pressure from the 1950s. It modulates nicotinic receptors.

And guess which other drug on the market works this way too?

(I'll give you a's only potentially one of the most dangerous drugs on the market today! And no, that's not just me being paranoid again. Even TIME magazine lists this as the #1 prescription drug linked to violence on the market. And it works in a similar way to TC-5214.)

TC-5214 targets the same receptors as dangerous drug

If you hadn't already guessed, TC-5214 works just like Chantix (the smoking cessation drug). They both target your body's nicotinic receptors. Specifically, both drugs curb the activity of a chemical messenger called acetylcholine in the brain.

Ah, but the trustworthy developers (remember them!?) say TC-5214 is much safer than Chantix.

Yeah, riiiight. I believe that.

Research links Chantix to increased risk for violence, heart attack, and suicidal thoughts. I expect TC-5214 will run into the same problems.

Nevertheless, AstraZeneca jumped on board with Targacept in 2009. They will pay as much as $1.24 billion for the rights to TC-5214 if it passes snuff.

(Excuse the pun.)

Unfortunately, I think it will and someday soon, you'll see Chantix's evil twin on the shelves as an anti-depressant.

Targacept plans to announce the results of the phase III trial by the end of the year. I'll keep you posted on the results.