Most people who smoke cigarettes know it’s bad for their health, but quitting is notoriously difficult. To make it easier, scientists are taking a brand-new approach. They are turning to bacteria that thrive on nicotine, the addictive component in tobacco. In ACS’ Journal of the American Chemical Society, they report successful tests on a bacterial enzyme that breaks down nicotine and could potentially dull its effects in humans.
Tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable disease, disability and death in the U.S. Smokers who want to quit can turn to various pharmacological aids. These include patches, gum and other nicotine-releasing products designed to replace cigarettes, as well as drugs that sequester nicotine in the body to prevent it from reaching the brain, where its addictiveness takes hold. But the success rates of these options are low. Only about 15 to 30 percent of smokers who try them are able to stop smoking for longer than one year. Kim D. Janda and colleagues wanted to try a new angle.
The researchers used an enzyme called NicA2 that comes from Pseudomonas putida, a kind of bacteria already known to degrade tobacco waste. In lab tests, NicA2 broke down all the nicotine in blood samples within 30 minutes. It also remained stable for more than three weeks in a buffer solution, at least three days in serum, and mice given the enzyme showed no observable side effects.