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Breakthrough in mapping nicotine addiction

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center just made a big discovery that may one day help smokers kick the habit. They determined the 3-D structure of two microscopic proteins that hold answers to how nicotine addiction occurs in the brain. Read story

{Video opens with video footage of Tom Loveless lighting up a cigarette. The Dallas resident and retired local TV news videographer has battled nicotine addiction for decades.}

Narrator: When it comes to kicking the habit, Tom Loveless fails and fails.

Tom Loveless: I mean, geeze. How stupid can you be? But I’m addicted. I just cannot quit smoking. 

Narrator: He’s among the roughly 16 percent of U.S. adults who still smoke cigarettes. He first lit up nearly 50 years ago.

Loveless: I hate what it does to me. I hate the expense. I hate the odor. It upsets my wife. If I’m stressed, I start smoking.

{Dr. Ryan Hibbs appears on-camera. He’s an assistant professor of neuroscience and biophysics at UT Southwestern Medical Center and an investigator with the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute.}

Ryan Hibbs, Ph.D.: Nicotine addiction and tobacco smoking remain the number one source of preventable death in the U.S. and so anything we can do to help people is going to have a huge impact on mortality and quality of life for people in the U.S. 

Narrator: Dr. Ryan Hibbs and the researchers in his neuroscience lab at UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute study how nicotine addiction occurs in the brain.

{Leading-edge cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) technology on UT Southwestern's campus is shown as Dr. Hibbs speaks.}

Hibbs: In this study, we used a new approach called cryo-electron microscopy, using the new cutting edge facility on campus to, for the first time, get multiple structures of this important neuro-transmitter receptor that’s activated by nicotine out of one biological sample. Before this, no one had been able to obtain structures of two different proteins from one sample using cryo-EM or any other method. Now that we can compare these different classes of nicotine binding sites directly from the same sample, we should be able to better engineer drugs that will selectively interfere with nicotine activation of the receptor so there’s a hope there that we’ll be able to come up with more selective therapeutics for nicotine addiction with fewer side effects. 

Narrator: A promising advance for Dr. David Balis’ many patients.

{Dr. David Balis is shown consulting with a patient in an exam room at Parkland Hospital. He’s a professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center}

David Balis, M.D.: 95 percent of the quit attempts that people make on their own without medicine fail.

Narrator: He heads smoking cessation programs at UT Southwestern’s Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center and at Parkland Hospital.

Balis: If we could get further understanding of that pathway to lead again to new targets and new treatments that would be sorely needed.

Narrator: So, folks like Loveless may one day get their brains responding in a positive way to behavior they already know is bad. 

Loveless: This sounds promising. It sounds encouraging.

{Video ends with a tight shot of Loveless digging a cigarette butt into the ground with his shoe before fading to black.}