Stanford bioengineer Christina Smolke, PhD, and her team have been on a decade-long mission to replicate how nature produces opium in poppies by genetically engineering the DNA of yeast and then further refining the process to manufacture modern day opioid drugs such as morphine, codeine and the well-known painkiller Vicodin.
Smolke outlined the methods in a report (subscription required) published in this week's edition of Nature Chemical Biology, which details the latest stages in the process of manufacturing opium-based medicines, from start to finish, in fermentation vats, similar to the process for brewing beer.
An article published today in the Stanford Report offers more details:
It takes about 17 separate chemical steps to make the opioid compounds used in pills. Some of these steps occur naturally in poppies and the remaining via synthetic chemical processes in factories. Smolke's team wanted all the steps to happen inside yeast cells within a single vat, including using yeast to carry out chemical processes that poppies never evolved to perform – such as refining opiates like thebaine into more valuable semi-synthetic opioids like oxycodone.
So Smolke programmed her bioengineered yeast to perform these final industrial steps as well. To do this she endowed the yeast with genes from a bacterium that feeds on dead poppy stalks. Since she wanted to produce several different opioids, her team hacked the yeast genome in slightly different ways to produce each of the slightly different opioid formulations, such as oxycodone or hydrocodone.
"We are now very close to replicating the entire opioid production process in a way that eliminates the need to grow poppies, allowing us to reliably manufacture essential medicines while mitigating the potential for diversion to illegal use," Smolke added.
While it could take several more years to refine these last steps in the lab, bioengineering opioids would eventually lead to less dependence on legal poppy farming, which has numerous restrictions and international dependencies from other countries. It would also provide a reliable supply and secure process for manufacturing important pain killing drugs.
Jen Baxter is a freelance writer and photographer. After spending eight years working for Kaiser Permanente Health plan she took a self-imposed sabbatical to travel around South East Asia and become a blogger. She enjoys writing about nutrition, meditation, and mental health, and finding personal stories that inspire people to take responsibility for their own well-being. Her website and blog can be found at www.jenbaxter.com.
Previously: Blocking addiction risks of morphine without reducing its pain-killing effects, Do opium and opioids increase mortality risk? and Patients’ genetics may play a role in determining side effects of commonly prescribed painkillers
Photo by Kate Thodey and Stephanie Galanie