"Smoking may be bad for you, but researchers and biotech companies are quietly developing pharmaceuticals that are decidedly good for brains, bowels, blood vessels and even immune systems -- and they're inspired by tobacco's deadly active ingredient: nicotine.
Nicotine acts on the acetylcholine receptors in the brain, stimulating and regulating the release of a slew of brain chemicals, including seratonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Not surprisingly, the first scientific work that identified these chemicals and how they affect the body came out of nicotine research -- much of it performed by tobacco companies.
Now drugs derived from nicotine and the research on nicotine receptors are in clinical trials for everything from helping to heal wounds, to depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, Tourette Syndrome, ADHD, anger management and anxiety.
"Nicotine is highly stigmatized -- and for good reason, because the delivery system is so deadly," says Don deBethizy, CEO of Targacept. "But the drug itself and the research generated by studying its effects on the brain both show great promise for helping us improve our physical and mental health."
DeBethizy worked for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for 15 years -- he was one of the first to publicly declare that tobacco is addictive -- before he spun Targacept off as a separate company. RJR retains a 4 percent share of the Winston Salem biotech, which has one mission: to develop drugs that target the so-called "nicotinic receptors" in the human central-nervous system.
Nicotine performs that function to an unhealthy extreme. "Nicotine itself is hugely potent and not specific enough," says Linda Gretton, Targacept's director of communications. "But the research we have allows us to take the best therapeutic qualities of nicotine and develop treatments that target receptors."
With funding from pharma giant AstraZeneca, Targacept is headed into Phase II clinical trials for a compound that could help overcome cognitive deficits in people who have Alzheimer's or schizophrenia. The company is also in Phase I trials for a compound that treats pain from molar extractions. The drugs both resemble nicotine in their molecular makeup, but are missing nicotine's addictive properties and toxicity.
Research into the medicinal qualities of nicotine was spurred in the 1990s by the availability of nicotine skin patches. For the first time clinical researchers had a form of nicotine that would deliver a reliable dose for study, and could be paired with placebos in blind trials."