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Nicotine study opens path for anti-smoking drug

31 January 2011 No Comment

SCIENTISTS have pinpointed a source of nicotine craving in the brain, opening up a new path towards drug treatments to help smokers kick their habit, according to a study released on Sunday.

Tobacco kills more than five million people every year and accounts for nearly one-in-10 adult deaths, 90 per cent of them due to lung cancer. In experiments with mice and rats, the researchers mapped the functioning of a gene called CHRNA5 that has been previously fingered in nicotine addiction.

The gene controls a receptor – an entry point on the surface of brain cells – which responds to nicotine molecules. With a normal version of this gene, anything more than a tiny dose of nicotine triggers a message to the brain which says, in effect, ‘stop consuming,’ the scientists found.

Larger doses unleash a sense of repulsion, similar to ‘bad-tasting food or drink,’ lead researcher Paul Kenny at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida said in an email exchange.

But the effect was quite different in mice in which a tiny sub-unit of the receptor, known as alpha5, had been knocked out. The negative message was never sent – and as a result, the rodents couldn’t get enough of the potent drug.

A similar scenario occurs naturally in some humans, the researchers believe. Genome-wide screening studies have identified genetic alterations which impair the alpha5 unit’s functioning. Between 30 and 35 per cent of the population in the United States is thought to have a form of the CHRNA5 gene that encourages unbridled nicotine craving.

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