A type of bacteria that munches on nicotine could be the key to a cure for tobacco addiction.

Scientists are looking at a bacterial enzyme that could be recreated in lab settings to help people quit smoking, the Scripps Research Institute reported.

"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, the Ely R. Callaway Jr. Professor of Chemistry and member of the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at TSRI.

Current smoking cessation aids fail for between 80 and 90 percent of smokers, but this bacteria could stop nicotine in its tracks on its way to the brain, removing the "reward" factor associated with smoking. The enzyme (NicA2 ) comes from the bacteria Pseudomonas putida, which lives in the soil of tobacco fields consumes nicotine as its sole source of carbon and nitrogen.

The bacterium is like a little Pac-Man," Janda said. "It goes along and eats nicotine."

To test the enzyme's potential impact on tobacco addiction, the researchers combined blood serum from mice with the amount of nicotine equivalent to one cigarette. They found when the enzyme was present, the nicotine's half-life dropped from two to three hours to only nine to 15 minutes. The enzyme was also able to stay stable in the lab for more than three weeks at 98 degrees Fahrenheit and did not appear to produce toxin metabolites, further backing up its viability as a drug.

"The enzyme is also relatively stable in serum, which is important for a therapeutic candidate," said Song Xue, a TSRI graduate student and first author of the new study.

In the future, the researchers hope to figure out a way to alter the enzyme's bacterial makeup to maximize its benefits.

"Hopefully we can improve its serum stability with our future studies so that a single injection may last up to a month," Xue concluded.

The findings were published in a recent edition of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.