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Tobacco Soil Bacterium is a Nicotine-Eating ‘Pacman’

“The bacterium is like a little Pac-Man,” said Prof. Kim Janda. “It goes along and eats nicotine.

By Mirna Alfonso (Patch Staff) August 6, 2015

From The Scripps Research Institute

A new study from scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) explores a bacterial enzyme — originally collected from soil in a tobacco field — that might be used as a drug candidate to help people quit smoking.

An enzyme from the bacterium can catch and keep the nicotine from ever reaching the brain, researchers said, depriving a person of the “reward” of nicotine that can trigger relapse into smoking.

The research shows that this enzyme can be recreated in lab settings and possesses a number of promising characteristics for drug development.

“Our research is in the early phase of drug development process, but the study tells us the enzyme has the right properties to eventually become a successful therapeutic,” said Kim Janda, the Ely R. Callaway Jr. Professor of Chemistry and member of the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at TSRI.

Janda has tried for 30 years to create a nicotine-eating enzyme in the lab but found it in nature recently — NicA2 from the bacteria known as Pseudomonas putida, originally isolated from soil in a tobacco field—consumes nicotine as its sole source of carbon and nitrogen.

“The bacterium is like a little Pac-Man,” said Janda. “It goes along and eats nicotine.”

In the new study, the TSRI researchers characterized the bacterial enzyme responsible for nicotine degradation and tested its potential usefulness as a therapeutic.

Janda said the next step is to alter the enzyme’s bacterial makeup, which will help mitigate potential immune liabilities and maximize its therapeutic potential.

“Hopefully we can improve its serum stability with our future studies so that a single injection may last up to a month,” added Xue.

In addition to Janda and Xue, Joel E. Schlosburg of TSRI was an author of the study, “A new strategy for smoking cessation: Characterization of a bacterial enzyme for the degradation of nicotine.”

The research was supported by the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at TSRI.

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