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Smokers' genes basis for next nicotine cure

Scientists are studying why some people are genetically wired for addiction--and they're developing drugs based on the findings.

Some smokers may be genetically wired for addiction, according to scientific findings, and now researchers are developing DNA-based cures to help them quit.

Scientists at SRI International and the University of California at San Francisco are at the forefront of such research. On Wednesday, the two organizations announced a five-year program to conduct studies into the genetic basis of nicotine dependence, and develop therapies or drugs based on the findings. The program will be funded by a $10 million grant from the National Institute of Health.

"With the patch, gum, nasal spray, inhaler, it's been one size fits all, and results have not been great," said Gary Swan, director for the Center for Health Sciences at SRI.

"How our brain responds to medication, and the genetic variations in those molecular pathways, could contribute to a patient's ability to quit," he said.

SRI also said Wednesday that it established a molecular genetics program to study the relationship between elevated cancer risks and nicotine metabolism genes found in people from different ethnic groups.

The efforts are part of a larger movement toward personalized medicine, in which drug developments can be based on the genetic makeup or neural pathways of ethnic groups or individuals. Some scientists and analysts believe the overall trend will shape the future of medicine.

Tobacco addiction is a focus of research because it's a major public health issue.

Despite legislative efforts to push smokers from public spaces like restaurants, roughly 47 million people smoke in the United States. Cancer caused by smoking is the No. 1 preventable cause of death in this country, with about 440,000 people dying from it annually. Yet according to researchers, many people fail at quitting smoking--or roughly 80 percent relapse to their addiction within the first year--because of cures that attempt to help everyone.

"The new program and funding will really allow us to apply the latest genomic technology, as well as related data analysis, to understand the science behind the individual variations contributing" to addiction and the ability to quit, said Huijun Ring, a molecular geneticist and the program manager for SRI's new center.

Genetic variability has been shown to contribute to individual susceptibility to dependence and the person's ability to quit, according to studies at SRI and the University of Pennsylvania. "So far, studies have been on single genes, but now we'll be looking at the genome as a whole and how genes are working together," Ring added.

The potential outcome would be an increase in the number of available drugs, including tailored varieties, for people who want to quit. For example, scientists know very little about how nicotine replacement therapy works on Asian people, who have different metabolisms. With research, they could develop improved drugs to cater to their metabolism.

Scientists also know that African Americans have a 1.8 fold greater risk for cancer compared with Caucasians. They also have a lower success rate comparatively for quitting. Ring said there's an opportunity to develop specific drugs for the population.

SRI, which has internal drug discovery capabilities, is already awaiting funding for one medication under development for smoking cessation.