Torrey Pines scientist using sea creatures in research aimed at combating tobacco addictionMarch 2nd, 2011 by TCPalm.com
By Christin Erazo
PORT ST. LUCIE — One local scientist’s research with underwater snails could make it easier to quit smoking.
Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies scientist Chris Armishaw has been working on drug compounds to block nicotine cravings, treat withdrawal symptoms and reduce negative side effects, such as depression and mood swings, of other anti-smoking drugs. The secret to his research is found in the toxins of marine cone snails.
“Tobacco addiction is the leading preventable cause of death in the Western World,” Armishaw wrote in an e-mail. “One particular class of molecules derived from cone snail venom is the alpha-conotoxins, which block the action of nicotine in the brain. An improved understanding of the molecular mechanisms of nicotine addiction in the brain is crucial in order to develop smoking cessation drugs, which in turn lower the burden on the health system.”
About 20 percent of all deaths in the United States each year are caused by tobacco-related diseases, according to Florida’s Department of Health. Medical costs associated with smoking put an annual burden of $75 billion on the U.S. health care system. The state health department also estimates about 14 percent of all Medicaid costs are for smoking-related illnesses.
Smoking cessation programs are being pushed as a cost-effective solution in a newly proposed Medicaid bill.
Armishaw started his nicotine addiction research with Torrey Pines three years ago.
Marine cone snails, which can be found in the tropical reef ecosystems of the Indian and Pacific oceans, use a venom-laced harpoon that shoots out of their shells to stab and shock their prey. Cone snails eat fish, worms and other marine snails.
Armishaw’s 12-year research effort on venomous snails found the venom could be used to develop new molecules, known as alpha-conotoxins, to treat conditions such as pain, depression and drug addiction. He also discovered by making subtle modifications to the alpha-conotoxins he could block specific functions in the nervous system that lead to tobacco addiction.
Armishaw hopes to use his research to develop better anti-smoking drugs.
Chantix, a Pfizer-produced anti-smoking drug approved by the Federal Drug Administration in May 2006, has been linked to side effects of suicidal behavior and agitation.
Torrey Pines CEO Dr. Richard Houghten said Armishaw’s work will tackle one of the world’s most addictive compounds.
“Quitting smoking is extraordinarily difficult, both my parents died of cigarette smoking diseases,” Houghten said. “Chris is working on various receptor types in test tubes and in animals, as well as studying cravings of many types. I believe anything you can find that can help (people quit smoking) is an important finding.”
In July, Armishaw received a $400,000 grant by the James and Esther King Biomedical Research Program to support his research of alpha-conotoxins. The grant program supports research for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of tobacco-related diseases.