Despite the widely used and highly addictive nature of cocaine, as well as the ever-present threat of lethal overdose, there’s still no FDA-approved medication for treating cocaine abuse, which results in many cocaine addicts being turned away from treatment centers and hospitals and never receiving the care they need. But recent findings by researchers Xiaoyang Wu and Ming Xu at the University of Chicago might indicate a promising solution—one that could forever change the future of how cocaine addiction is handled.
After the identification of a naturally-occurring cocaine-degrading enzyme called butyrylcholinesterase (BChE), Wu and Xu began developing a method that combines CRISPR gene editing and skin grafting to produce “cocaine-proof” laboratory mice—mice that are incapable of developing cocaine addiction, relapsing into cocaine use, and overdosing on cocaine. CRISPR is a revolutionary new tool for gene editing that allows for a cell’s genome to be edited with precision and without affecting other genes. Wu and Xu’s procedure begins with the removal of a small piece of skin from a donor mouse, followed by the use of CRISPR to introduce BChE-producing genes into the skin cells within the piece of skin and then grafting that patch of skin back onto the same donor mouse. These genetically modified skin cells produce sufficient amounts of BChE to enter the mouse’s circulatory system and degrade cocaine faster than it can accumulate, and therefore faster than it can cause addiction, overdose, or relapse. Wu and Xu provide a wealth of information on the science behind these processes and the potentially significant impact of these findings on the future of addiction medicine. Tune in to hear the full conversation.