Bioengineered enzyme that eats cocaine and can survive in the human body… sounds like the makings of a low-budget but entirely awesome cocaine zombie movie. (Please let the epidemic begin in Hollywood.)
Bacteria that live in the soil near coca plants make an enzyme called cocaine esterase, which rapidly breaks down the drug. The enzyme could theoretically be useful to destroy cocaine ingested by people before it takes effect, but the half-life of the enzyme–which was isolated years ago–is only about 12 minutes at human body temperature, according to Chemical & Engineering News. “It would be hard to use this enzyme for therapeutic purposes,” University of Kentucky researcher Chang-Guo Zhan says.
So scientists decided to tinker with it. What if the enzyme could be made sturdy at high temperatures? In a 2008 study, Zhan and colleagues first figured out how to extend the half-life to six hours, possibly enough to treat an overdose. But that wasn’t good enough.