Scientists found a way to turn a bread ingredient into a painkiller

A man cultivates poppy bulbs at a farm oin Afghanistan. Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Scientists have successfully genetically engineered yeast to make opiate painkillers.

The breakthrough, announced in the journal Science, will bring a faster and potentially cheaper way to produce different types of plant-based medicines.

The engineers from Stanford University reprogrammed the genetics of common baker’s yeast so the fast-growing cells convert sugar into hydrocodone in three to five days.

Hydrocodone, and its chemical relatives such as morphine and oxycodone, are opioids, members of a family of drugs sourced from the opium poppy.

It can take more than a year to produce a batch of medicine starting from the farms in Australia, Europe and elsewhere which are licensed to grow opium poppies.

The researcher succeeded in finding more than 20 genes from five different organisms and engineering them into the genome of baker’s yeast.

The organisms which contributed genes to the yeast include California poppy and rat.

“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,” says senior author Christina Smolke, an associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford.

The experiment proves that bioengineered yeast can make complex plant-based medicines. At the moment the volumes are small.

“This is only the beginning,” Smolke says. “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.”

In their Science paper, the Stanford authors acknowledged that the new process to make painkillers could increase concerns about the potential for opioid abuse.

“We want there to be an open deliberative process to bring researchers and policymakers together,” Smolke says. “We need options to help ensure that the bio-based production of medicinal compounds is developed in the most responsible way.”

Previous research announced in May, in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, described how scientists synthesized reticuline, a compound from which most alkaloids derive, including the opiates morphine and codeine as well as many other potential new drugs.

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