Researchers are on the verge of creating a brand new manufacturing process for opiates by using yeast. Traditionally, opiates are produced via the opium poppy plant and are actually notoriously difficult to grow with yields often down due to the specific environmental needs required to be met for their growth. It’s hard to know whether or not finding a new manufacturing process for opioids, free from the poppy plant is either good or bad. What is known is that whilst opiates are a huge cause a problems relating to addiction, there is currently still a place for the use of opiates as pain-management medicines within society, and we must not forget that fact.
Researchers from Stanford University in the United States believe they have found a way to replicate the entire production process of opiates without needing the poppy plant. Christina Smolke, who has led the research process, has already spent an entire decade on genetically tweaking and enhancing yeast in order to reproduce the biochemistry of poppies. Her end goal would be to “brew” opiate-based medications like beer, producing painkillers from start-to-finish in fermentation vats.
In an extract from the research publication via Stanford, the technical details shine light on how they have achieved their current progress in their program to create opiates without the poppy plant:
‘...In their report, the research team explains how they carefully inserted five genes from the poppy plant and from bacteria that lives on poppy stalks into the yeast's genetic information. This created new traits that nearly mirror poppies' opiate properties.
Smolke first managed to insert traits into yeast that would allow it to turn simple sugar molecules into complex precursor opiates called salutardine back in 2008. However, that's only the first stage of a complex process. Opiates like morphine can be made naturally from poppies, but others like oxycodone - deemed "safer" and slightly less addictive - have to be produced from an alteration of a chemical within the poppy called thebaine.
This new stage of Smolke's research covers that other end, helping yeast to produce thebaine and other important synthesis chemicals. Now all that is left is to bring these two trait-pathways together into one strain of yeast...’.
I want to point out that in the above quote whilst there may be a pharmaceutical or chemical argument against Oxycodone being marginally safer and/or less addictive than opiates such as morphine – I observe from my own research that this point is almost negligent in a way and is without much efficacy in a real-world context. We know for instance the power of Oxycodone and its addiction rates in the United States have been devastating.
In regards to the future of creating a new manufacturing process for opiates, there are some benefits that absolutely should be considered by being able to achieve an alternative production process without the use of the poppy plant. Christine Smolke outlines that the production process would be done in closed fermentation vats and that securing these vats and offering tighter controls around the access and availability of the process could help prevent the potential for abuse of the production process and also decrease the chances of illegal drug trade and trafficking.