Opiates derived from poppy seeds could be replaced with opiates derived from yeast and sugar in the near future.
It is not as simple as it sounds, but a Stanford University bioengineering team working on the project for over a decade is the owner of the first breakthrough in the field. Which is both exciting for a range of medical applications were the yeast-opioids to become widely available, and somewhat worrying in terms of a boost to the illegal substances market.
Stanford assistant professor of bioengineering Christina Smolke and Stephanie Galanie, Kate Thodey, Isis J. Trenchard as well as Maria Filsinger Interrante authored the report ‘Complete biosynthesis of opioids in yeast’ published in the Science journal.
Churning out opioids from yeast as an alternative to expensive and controversial poppy seed-derived opioids hasn’t been an easy task. A decade later, the proof-of-principle experiment yielded the first successful results.
Coaxing yeast to produce hydrocodone and thebaine was not too different from beer or bread making. With the added difference that instead of emphasizing the alcoholic fermentation process, the team focused on leveraging the opiates derivative potential.
Hydrocodone is generally used in palliative and pain management treatments. Thebaine is an opiate alkaloid, that is converted in painkillers such as Oxycodone/Oxycontin. At first, cultivating the yeast strains resulted in tyrosine, which is an amino acid that precedes opioids. Further bioengineering and addition of genes to the strains led to obtaining hydrocodone and thebaine. For hydrocodone, a total of 23 added genes was needed, while for thebaine, the team added 21 different genes in the mix.
The association with home-brewing beer or baking bread might make the process sound easily available and reproducible for a sector that has been giving governmental authorities worldwide quite a headache.
Nonetheless, Christina Smolke explained:
“The cells are grown in enclosed bioreactors, that very precisely control stirring, aeration rates, nutrients and other factors such as pH”.
The processes would be hard to reproduce in non-laboratory conditions. While further exploiting the finding in strictly regulated environments holds valuable promise for the development of the palliative and pain management market that is currently restricted and at the whim of poppy crops, many have argued that it would leave an open door for illegal exploiting and boost illegal drug trade.
That is not the case, according to the researchers. In a different yet related experiment, titled ‘Complete absence of thebaine biosynthesis under home-brew fermentation conditions’, Christina Smolke, Stephanie Galanie and Drew Endy experimented with home-brewing kits and yeast typically used in the fermentation process, as well as the specialized yeast strains they created under laboratory conditions.
The latter did not yield the laboratory results. There was no presence of thebaine or hydrocodone. There was a small amount of reticuline. Nonetheless, the researchers concluded, it would take a lot more than a home-brewing kit, even with the right yeast strain to recreate medical opiates.
Photo Credits: wired.com