‘Pac-Man’ bacteria eats nicotine before it reaches the brain, study finds

Between 80 and 90 of smokers try smoking cessation aids without success, but now researchers have discovered a promising solution: a bacterial enzyme that destroys nicotine in the body before it reaches the brain.

"The bacterium is like a little Pac-Man," researcher Kim Janda, a professor of chemistry and member of the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at The Scripps Research Institute, said in a news release. "It goes along and eats nicotine."

By seeking out and stopping nicotine from reaching the brain, the bacterium, which would be used in a drug and prescribed as a stop-smoking tool, deprives the person the “reward” of nicotine.

The Scripps Research Institute’s research is in the early phase of the drug development process, but the team believes the bacterial enzyme can be a successful therapeutic that would help prevent relapse.

For their study, scientists combined serum, a component of blood, from mice with a one-cigarette dose of nicotine. When they added the enzyme, the amount of nicotine in the serum dropped by half in nine to 15 minutes. The typical nicotine half-life is two to three hours.

Researchers also found that the enzyme stays stable in lab conditions and does not create toxic metabolites when it degrades nicotine, making it a good candidate as a drug, according to the news release.

The team is now working on altering the enzyme’s bacterial makeup to 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," first study author Song Xue said in the news release.