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Background: Ulcerative colitis is predominantly a disease of non-smokers, and transdermal nicotine is therapeutic but often results in side-effects. Administration of nicotine as a liquid rectal enema results in less systemic nicotine absorption.

Aim: To determine the safety and clinical response of nicotine tartrate liquid enemas for active left-side ulcerative colitis in a pilot study.

Methods: Ten non-smoking patients with mildly to moderately active left-sided ulcerative colitis unresponsive to first-line therapy were treated in an open protocol with nightly nicotine tartrate liquid enemas at a dose of 3 mg nicotine base for 1 week then 6 mg for 3 weeks. Clinical assessments were determined at baseline and 4 weeks by endoscopy, physician assessment and a patient diary of daily symptoms. Peak and trough serum nicotine and trough plasma cotinine were determined by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and high performance liquid chromatography, respectively.

Results: After 4 weeks of treatment, 5/7 patients (71%) showed clinical and sigmoidoscopic improvement (per protocol analysis). The other three patients discontinued therapy within 7 days because of inability to retain the liquid enemas. No patients showed histologic improvement. Six of the patients who completed the 4-week study had peak and trough serum nicotine concentration determined, only 1 of 6 patients had a detectable peak nicotine concentration (value 2.3 ng/mL), and all six patients had undetectable trough nicotine concentrations. The mean trough plasma cotinine concentration was 13 ± 10 ng/mL. Transient and mild adverse events occurred in 4/10 patients (nausea, lightheadedness, tremor, sleep disturbance). Given the low or undetectable serum nicotine concentrations, these adverse events are not likely to be related to the nicotine enemas.

Conclusions: Nicotine tartrate liquid enemas administrated at a dose of 3 mg nicotine base/day for 1 week and then 6 mg/day for 3 weeks are safe and appear to result in clinical improvement in some patients with mildly to moderately active, left-sided ulcerative colitis unresponsive to first-line therapy. Placebo-controlled trials are warranted to confirm these preliminary findings.