Could a skin graft help cocaine addicts get clean? Scientists at the University of Chicago say their novel approach has worked in mice, reports New Scientist. And if this translates to humans, it could be a game changer, though the remedy is specific to cocaine addiction. In a new study in Nature Biomedical Engineering, the researchers explain that their work revolves around an enzyme we naturally produce called BChE. The enzyme is unique in that it's a cocaine killer—it essentially destroys any cocaine it comes across in the bloodstream—but the body produces too little of it to be of use for addicts. Solution? The scientists say they can take skin cells from people, arm them with a jacked-up version of BChE, and then implant them back under the recipient's skin. The process, taking advantage of the gene-editing technique CRISPR, produced strong results in mice.
"Compared to other gene therapies, our approach is minimally invasive, long term, low maintenance, and affordable," lead researcher Ming Xu tells the Guardian. "It's very promising." In the study, mice that received the implants eliminated a standard dose of cocaine from their bodies in 20 minutes, versus two hours for the control mice. Crucially, the first group didn't get a "pleasure hit" from the drug, either, per New Scientist. As the Guardian puts it, the treatment essentially made the mice immune to cocaine. What's more, all the mice with the implants survived doses of cocaine that killed the control mice. "Adapting this approach for humans could be a promising way for blocking addiction," another researcher writes at the Conversation, and she lays out the next steps underway toward that goal. (Humans aren't the only creatures having trouble with cocaine.)