Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute have identified a bacterial enzyme that could help people quit smoking by seeking out and consuming nicotine before it gets to the brain.

“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, a professor at the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology.

The new research, published online ahead of print on Thursday in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, offers a possible alternative to current anti-smoking aids, which fail in at least 80 percent of smokers.

The idea behind an enzyme therapy would be to seek out and destroy nicotine before it reaches the brain—depriving a person of the “reward” of nicotine that can trigger relapse into smoking.

For more than 30 years, Janda and his colleagues have struggled to create such an enzyme in the lab, but they recently ran across a potential enzyme found in nature—NicA2 from the bacteria known as Pseudomonas putida. It turns out this bacterium—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.”

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.