Sara Bellum
June 25 2010
First place winner Ameya Deshmukh with NIDA judges Dr. Ruben Baler, Dr. Pam Ling, and Dr. Cindy Miner.

Did you ever wonder how scientists develop medications to help people stop smoking? High School Junior Ameya Deshmukh has been wondering about that since he was 7 years old. Because his parents work in science labs, he began learning about basic science from an early age. Now at age 16, he just won the first place NIDA Addiction Science Award at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

For his project, Ameya decided to search a database of 10,000 molecules to find one that will bind to nicotine receptors in the brain.  Those are the cells that nicotine molecules attach to and then cause their addictive effects in the brain.

If we can learn how to link up the right molecules with the right receptors—say, by developing a special medication with that would go right to nicotine’s “sweet spot” in the brain—then we could block the pleasure that people get from cigarettes.  A lot of lives might be saved, since 440,000 people in this country die every year from tobacco-related diseases. This includes 35,000 who die from exposure to second-hand smoke. UGH!

Because identifying the right molecule can be like finding a needle in a haystack, Ameya used what is known as “rational drug design.” He first selected molecules based on previous research. Then he used computerized models to narrow the list of potential compounds even more. Finally, he tested the short list of molecules on human cells to identify which ones would bind to the receptors.

With more research, Ameya’s work could point to new directions in developing medications to help people quit smoking.

When talking to the judges, Ameya stressed how important it was to develop these medications. In 2009, 20.1 percent of 12th-graders, 13.1 percent of 10th-graders, and 6.5 percent of 8th-graders said they had smoked in the month before the survey. Unfortunately, many will get addicted. The hard part is quitting, as seen in the nearly 35 million people who make a serious attempt to quit smoking each year, with most starting up again within a week. So, promising new medications are sorely needed.

NIDA’s Addiction Science award is given at the annual Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), which was held in San Jose this year. For more information on NIDA’s 3 winners, see NIDA’s news release at http://www.nida.nih.gov/newsroom/10/NR5-14.html

Are there serious public health problems that you could address in a science project?

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