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Scientists, Zebrafish Team Up To Fight Nicotine Addiction

ROCHESTER, Minn. (WCCO) -- Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester are using an unlikely weapon in the fight against nicotine addiction.

It's not mice, but zebrafish.

Sharing 80 percent of our genetic makeup with the aquatic pet, zebrafish produce hundreds of offspring and are perfect for drawing sweeping scientific conclusions.

"So, compared to mice where a cage might have one or two mice, we can grow hundreds of fish in a small environment," said Research Technologist Gary Moulder.

And because zebrafish develop rapidly, scientists can find their answers quickly.

"We can actually watch and observe their entire development in a glass dish," Moulder said.

It's that observation that has led to the latest discovery in nicotine addiction. Stephen Ekker, Director of the Mayo Addiction Research Center, said zebrafish become addicted to, and even crave, nicotine in the same way that humans do.

Researchers found that when they added an anti-epilepsy drug that's already FDA approved to the Chantix – a prescription medicine that helps people quit smoking – the fish stopped moving, indicating it had blocked their ability to detect the nicotine.

About only half of smokers respond to Chantix, and the hope is the new drug cocktail will help those who don't respond.

"When your body is addicted to a drug like tobacco, your body has been physiologically reprogrammed, and so it's very hard to quit," Ekker said. "But the good news is that we've just started to get a new generation of drugs that are helping."

There is one side effect – weight loss.

For the millions who smoke, saying goodbye to a bad habit and also some unwanted pounds means there'll be no need to go fishing for a compliment.

Ekker said the new drug will be used for clinical trial within the next year.

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