When the nicotine patch was introduced, researchers began studying nicotine in a new way.

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Nicotine and Drug Research

Nicotine may carry some health benefits with it, but the problem has been "the delivery system," says Don deBethizy. DeBethizy is the CEO of Targacept, a biotech company spun off from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and dedicated to researching nicotine-related drugs [Source: Wired]. No one should take up smoking, chewing tobacco or the patch for their health, especially those suffering from pre-existing medical conditions. The challenge is for scientists to find a way to derive medications from nicotine or to find a safe substitute for compounds like nornicotine.

We've already mentioned that nicotine's promotion of blood vessel growth may help diabetes patients. The pharmaceutical company CoMentis is testing a nicotine gel that's applied to needed areas in order to boost circulation and blood vessel development.

Targacept is currently running clinical trials for two nicotine-related drugs. One is designed to boost cognitive function in schizophrenia and Alzheimer's patients; the other is a pain reliever to be taken after having teeth pulled. These two vastly different treatments, both derived from nicotine.

While no nicotine-derived drugs are available yet, many are in the development or testing phases. The variety of conditions being studied reflects the excitement felt in the scientific community for the potential of nicotine: anxiety, depression, Alzheimer's, Tourette Syndrome, ADHD, Parkinson's disease, diabetes and schizophrenia. Many of these conditions are psychological in nature. Researchers point out that it's probably no coincidence that 50 percent of smokers have mental health problems and that depressed people are twice as likely as non-depressed people to be smokers. Dr. Ed Levin, a prominent nicotine researcher at Duke University, calls it a form of self-medicating [Source: Wired]. (It's also frequently more difficult for depressed people to quit smoking.)

It may be years before we see any nicotine-derived drugs on the market. Taking a drug from research to market can take hundreds of millions of dollars and years of work -- not to mention many trial stages and governmental approval. Even so, one day we may look at nicotine like we do opium, foxglove and nightshade. In one form, they're highly dangerous substances; in another, they're vital, even life-saving, medical treatments.

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