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First place winner Ameya Deshmukh with NIDA judges Dr. Ruben Baler, Dr. Pam Ling, and Dr. Cindy Miner.

Sara Bellum

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

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

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.


This is extraordinary! Ameya is basically taking the approach the medical profession uses to block pain and disease from spreading through the body. Very logical and boy I really hope his work proves fruitful because I agree, there is no doubt such a breakthrough would save millions of lives.

Nice Post about Smoking.
Really it's a very useful and helpful post for us.
Thanks for great sharing.

What youre saying is completely true. I know that everybody must say the same thing, but I just think that you put it in a way that everyone can understand. I also love the images you put in here. They fit so well with what youre trying to say. Im sure youll reach so many people with what youve got to say.


Hey this si amazing I never though thats how it works.. what about using an electric cigarette to stop smoking?

@Simon The Food and Drug Administration recently warned against it, saying it has “no way of has no way of knowing,” except for the limited testing it has performed, “the levels of nicotine or the amounts or kinds of other chemicals that the various brands of these products deliver to the user.” In one test, the FDA found a chemical used in antifreeze that is toxic to humans, and in several other samples, it found cancer-causing agents and toxic chemicals that users of e-cigs could be exposing themselves to. We really don’t know enough about them yet, so the best advice is to stay away from them.

Interesting... well thats how it works these days... Thanks for the article.

I've been looking for info to help my kids quit smoking...
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