A scientific blueprint to end tobacco cravings may be on the way after researchers crystallized a protein that likely holds answers to how nicotine addiction occurs in the brain. The breakthrough at the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center comes after decades of failed attempts to crystallize and determine the 3D structure of a protein that scientists expect will help them develop new treatments by understanding nicotine’s molecular effects. “It’s going to require a huge team of people and a pharmaceutical company to study the protein and develop the drugs, but I think this is the first major stepping stone to making that happen,” said Dr. Ryan Hibbs, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and Biophysics with the O’Donnell Brain Institute, who co-authored the findings published online on October 3, 2016 in Nature. The protein, called the α4β2 (alpha-4-beta-2) nicotinic receptor, is present on nerve cells in the brain. Nicotine binds to the receptor as a result of someone smoking a cigarette or chewing tobacco, causing the protein to open a path for ions to enter the cell. The process produces cognitive benefits such as increased memory and focus, but is also highly addictive and damaging to the lungs. Until the new findings were generated, scientists did not have a way to examine, at atomic resolution, how nicotine achieves these cognitive and addictive effects. The expectation is that the newly derived 3D structures will help researchers understand how nicotine influences the activity of the receptor and lead to the development of useful medications.
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