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Nicotinic partial agonists provide a partial aid for smoking cessation and thus contribute to decreasing tobacco-related disease. Improved drugs constitute a continued area of study. However, there remains no reductionist method to examine the cellular and subcellular pharmacokinetic properties of these compounds in living cells. Here, we developed new intensity-based drug sensing fluorescent reporters (iDrugSnFRs) for the nicotinic partial agonists dianicline, cytisine, and two cytisine derivatives - 10-fluorocytisine and 9-bromo-10-ethylcytisine. Development of the series was aided and explained by the first atomic-scale structural studies on liganded periplasmic binding protein-based biosensors. Members of the series detect their drug partners in solution, as well as at the plasma membrane (PM) and in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) of cell lines and primary mouse hippocampal neurons. At the PM, the speed of solution changes limits the growth and decay rates of the fluorescence response in almost all cases. In contrast, we found that rates of membrane crossing differ among these nicotinic drugs by > 30 fold. The new nicotinic iDrugSnFRs provide insight into the real-time pharmacokinetic properties of nicotinic agonists and provide a methodology whereby iDrugSnFRs can inform both pharmaceutical neuroscience and addiction neuroscience.

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