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In the Skin

Researchers have developed a gene engineering approach that could be used to combat cocaine addiction, New Scientist reports.

The University of Chicago's Ming Xu and colleagues hypothesized that skin cells could be take from patients and altered in the lab to have an extra enzyme, butyrylcholinesterase, that quickly breaks cocaine down, it adds. These altered cells could then, as part of an organoid, be implanted under patients' skin.

As Xu and his colleagues report in Nature Biomedical Engineering this week, the approach appears to work in mice. They used a CRISPR-based approach to edit mouse cells to express enhanced form of butyrylcholinesterase before transplanting them back. Mice treated in this way broke down cocaine more quickly and were less likely to seek out cocaine than untreated mice. Treatment also prevented mice given lethal doses of cocaine from dying.

Xu tells New Scientist that some of the treated mice are still healthy and have active organoids, even after six months. Based on this, he says he hopes such treatment might be a long lasting way to address drug abuse. "We'd like to move to clinical trials as soon as possible," he adds.