Bye Bye Poppy! Yeast can be engineered to produce opiates, study shows

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Researchers at Stanford University who altered the genetic code of yeast have produced synthetic opioids, a new study shows. The breakthrough could lead to more effective pain killers and cheaper drugs.

A team of US scientists announced Thursday that they had genetically engineered yeast to convert sugar into hydrocodone, an opioid in the same chemical family as morphine, in just three to five days. Their work was published in the journal Science.

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World Health Organization estimates show that 5.5 billion people suffer from pain and have limited or no access to relief, so the development could find significant application in the future.

This is the most complicated chemical synthesis ever engineered in yeast,” said senior author Christina Smolke, an associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford, in a statement.

Smolke’s team “found and fine-tuned snippets of DNA from other plants, bacteria and even rats,” which produce enzymes necessary for the yeast cells to convert sugar into hydrocodone, a compound that deactivates pain receptors in the brain.

The discovery is an important step toward engineering painkillers from yeast, but it’s just the beginning as the team had to use 4,400 gallons of yeast to create a single dose of painkiller.

The techniques we developed and demonstrate for opioid pain relievers can be adapted to produce many plant-derived compounds to fight cancers, infectious diseases and chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and arthritis,” Smolke said.

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Opiates like heroin and morphine are made from opium poppies typically grown in places like Australia, Europe and the Middle East. Researchers say it can take a year to produce a batch of medicine from poppy plants, which are harvested, processed, and shipped to pharmaceutical factories where the active drug molecules can be extracted and refined. As farming is the sole source of these important painkillers, supplies can be jeopardized by crop failures due to inclement weather or pests.

When we started work a decade ago, many experts thought it would be impossible to engineer yeast to replace the entire farm-to-factory process,” said Smolke.

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Still, Smolke and her team said the new process for making opioid painkillers could raise concerns about increasing the potential for opioid abuse, which has become a problem in the US.

Stanford holds the patents for the technology, but Smolke and members of her research team have formed a company.