It doesn’t take much to get Dr. Parimal “Perry” Chowdhury to talk about how nicotine and smoking affect the body.
“It’s still a huge global health problem,” said Chowdhury, a UAMS physiologist who has taken an active role in an international group of researchers focused on tobacco-induced diseases.
Through his research at UAMS, Chowdhury is closing in on how nicotine, a component of tobacco, not only damages the pancreas but also potentially leads to pancreatic cancer.
Nicotine and smoking continue to be linked to numerous chronic and deadly diseases, from cancer to heart disease. Despite that, the World Health Organization reports that global cigarette consumption is still climbing.
Nicotine is the stimulant that gives cigarettes and other tobacco products their kick. Speeding up the heart rate, it also switches on so-called “reward circuits” in the brain to trigger feelings of relaxation and pleasure within minutes.
In recent years, researchers at UAMS have focused on the mechanisms that nicotine triggers to cause disease.
“We all know smoking is bad for you, but many of the mechanisms leading to disease are not well understood,” said Dr. Anissa Buckner, a researcher in the Walker Eye Research Center of the UAMS Jones Eye Institute.
In 2006, Buckner suggested nicotine may serve as a co-factor to stimulate replication of a virus that can develop into eye-related diseases such as retinitis or age-related macular degeneration. While other research pointed to smoking as a factor in macular degeneration, a condition that is the leading cause of blindness in those 60 and older, Buckner wondered about nicotine in particular.
The researchers — funded in part by Arkansas’ settlement with the tobacco industry over medical costs for smoking-related illnesses — injected nicotine into cells infected with a specific virus that most people carry harmlessly. Buckner said nicotine can stimulate replication of the virus, which could in turn cause the dormant virus to become a productive infection leading to disease.
Her research team reinforced findings that nicotine slowed the body’s response to an injury. Normally new blood vessels form around a broken bone to start the repair process and eventually the growth of new bone.
“Smoking is a real inhibitor of bone healing, but if you stop smoking, the process will start working properly,” Gaddy said. “The presence of nicotine may be just one of the factors in cigarette smoke that delays the growth of new blood vessels and delays the healing process.”
Heavy smokers often have chronic pancreas problems too, Chowdhury said. Nicotine can scar the pancreas and interrupt its normal functioning. It can cause fluid to build up in the pancreas or accelerate activation of enzymes that can injure the organ.
Studies have shown smoking is the greatest risk factor for the development of cancer in the comma-shaped digestive organ. Researchers, including Chowdhury, are now moving to study cellular mechanisms that link nicotine and pancreatic cancer, a relatively rare but very deadly form of cancer.
The chemical itself is not cancerous, Chowdhury noted, but it can cause changes that ultimately result in cancer.
“Smoking tobacco products represents the most preventable cause of premature death in the world,” Chowdhury said. “As we better understand the mechanisms behind tobacco addiction and tobacco-induced disease, we can improve cessation programs to save lives.”