Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation




Pharmaceutical Sciences

First Advisor

Dr. Chang-Guo Zhan


Cocaine is a widely abused and addictive drug, resulting in serious medical and social problems in modern society. Currently, there is no FDA-approved medication specific for cocaine abuse treatment. The disastrous medical and social consequences of cocaine abuse have made the development of an anti-cocaine medication a high priority. However, despite decades of efforts, traditional pharmacodynamic approach has failed to yield a truly useful small-molecule drug due to the difficulties inherent in blocking a blocker like cocaine without affecting the normal functions of the transporters or receptors. An alternative approach, i.e. pharmacokinetic approach, is to interfere with the delivery of cocaine to its receptors/transporters and/or accelerate its metabolism in the body. It would be an ideal anti-cocaine medication to accelerate cocaine metabolism producing biologically inactive metabolites.

Two natural enzymes may catalyze hydrolysis of cocaine: human butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) and bacterial cocaine esterase (CocE). However, the wild-type enzymes are not suitable as anti-cocaine therapeutics, due to the low catalytic activity, thermoinstability, or short biological half-life. In this investigation, we performed integrated computational-experimental studies to rationally design and discover mutants of these enzymes in order to improve the catalytic activity, thermostability, and/or biological half-life. To rationally design desirable mutants of the enzymes, we have successfully developed computational models, including those for BChE gating, glycosylated BChE structure, BChE-substrate complex structures, BChE dimer/tetramer structures, CocE monomer/dimer structures, and CocE-substrate complex structures. Development of the computational models enabled us to rationally design new amino-acid mutations that may improve the catalytic activity, thermostability, and/or prolonged biological half-life. The computational design was followed by wet experimental tests, including both in vitro and in vivo experiments, leading to discovery of new enzyme forms with not only a high catalytic efficiency against cocaine, but also an improved thermostability and/or prolonged biological half-life. The identified new mutants of BChE and CocE are expected to be valuable candidates for development of a more efficient enzyme therapy for cocaine abuse. The encouraging outcomes of the present study also suggest that the structure-and-mechanism-based design and integrated computational-experimental approach is promising for rational drug design and discovery.