Why do people smoke? There’s no denying that smoking is horrible for you, yet the puffing continues. As any smoker will tell you, it’s because the hardest part about quitting smoking is that few things can match the reward of nicotine hitting the brain. It calms the nerves, makes it easier to concentrate and it even dulls pain. But researchers may have found a new tool that blocks the nicotine reward before it hits the brain, potentially making it easier for smokers to quit.
The tool is a naturally occurring enzyme called NicA2 that is found in the bacteria Pseudomonas putida. This bacteria lives in the soil of tobacco fields, where it thrives on nicotine as its primary source of carbon and nitrogen. Researchers have dubbed the bacteria “little Pac-Man,” thanks to its ability to gobble up all of the nicotine in its path.
In lab tests, researchers pumped up blood samples with enough nicotine to simulate smoking one cigarette, then they added the NicA2. The enzyme was able to minimize the amount of time that the nicotine was active in the blood from a few hours to 15 minutes or less — thus reducing the “reward” felt by the brain. The study’s results were published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
This research is still in its infancy, but researchers have found that the enzyme remains stable for several weeks at a time, which might make it a viable drug candidate. The initial study did not show that any toxic by-products were created in the blood. The hope is that with continued study, researchers might be able to create a serum from NicA2 that destroys nicotine in the blood before it ever has a chance to reach the brain and deliver its “rewards.” If they can do that, smokers would still go through withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit, but those symptoms wouldn’t be alleviated by smoking another cigarette.
Ideally, a drug made from the little Pac-Man enzyme would be paired with other tools and counseling to help smokers quit the habit. NicA2 may destroy the pleasure smokers get from a cigarette, but it doesn’t address the root issues that caused a smoker to pick up the habit in the first place. And while smoking is bad for you, it doesn’t do much good to give it up only to replace it with another destructive habit.