A ramped-up version of the body's cocaine-purging protein could lead to the world's first effective medicine for combating overdoses and addictions to the illicit drug. The body can break down and inactivate cocaine with the natural blood protein butyrylcholinesterase, but this enzyme is normally too weak and ineffective for medical use. Now, with the aid of computer simulations to test molecules virtually, scientists at the University of Kentucky and their colleagues have developed a far more active form of this protein. They created it by stabilizing its reactive structures and stripping away parts that hindered its function. In laboratory studies, the mutant form of the enzyme broke down cocaine roughly 2,000 times faster than the natural version. The scientists also found that the artificial enzyme prevented convulsions and death when injected into mice that were given otherwise lethal overdoses of cocaine. Read more in the September 24 Journal of the American Chemical Society.
This article was originally published with the title "Blow Away" in Scientific American 299, 5, 34 (November 2008)