New use of yeast: making narcotic painkillers

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New use of yeast: making narcotic painkillers

Recently scientists have genetically engineered baker’s yeast to create powerful painkillers. The most common painkillers sourced from opium poppy are called as opioids and the opiate-containing medicines include morphine, Oxycontin and Vicodin.

According to the Stanford University team, new technology might bypass the poppy, leading to faster and possibly cheaper methods of creating many types of plant-based medicines.

“This is only the beginning,” said study senior author Christina Smolke, an associate professor of bioengineering. “The techniques we developed and demonstrate for opioid [narcotic] 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.” The finding does have a potential downside, however: "home-brewed" narcotics could crop up once this technology becomes easily reproduced.

In May, a University of California, Berkeley group published a study in the Journal Nature Chemical Biology depicting everything except one stage of a procedure to utilize genetically altered yeast to convert sugar into morphine. In this study, the team reprogrammed the genetics of standard baker’s yeast used for thousands of years to leaven bread so that cells of the organism were able to convert sugar into the painkiller hydrocodone within 3-5 days. According to researchers, it can take more than a year to produce these drugs and this is because poppies are grown on licensed farms, harvested, processed and sent to factories, where the material is refined into medicines. “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,” Smolke said in a Stanford news release.

The scenarios where narcotics from yeast are manufactured in illicit labs aren’t on the horizon anytime soon, the Stanford team said. That’s because, right now, it would take 4,400 gallons of bioengineered yeast to produce a single dose of pain medicine, Smolke’s team said. They believe that yeast forms the basis to make complex plant-based medicines and Stanford has patented the new technology. Smolke and team have formed a company and they hope that technology will become more efficient in the future and that's when safeguards may be needed. “We want there to be an open deliberative process to bring researchers and policymakers together,” she said. “We need options to help ensure that the bio-based production of medicinal compounds is developed in the most responsible way.”

According to a group led by Kenneth Oye, director of policy and practices at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, those safeguards should include four key points:

· Engineer the yeast strains to make them less appealing to criminals. They can be designed to produce only opiates with limited street value or could be made to be so difficult to process that it’s not worth the effort. Opiate producing yeast strains also could include a DNA watermark to make them more easily traced by law enforcement.

· Tighten security around narcotic-producing yeast strains, similar to that now used with prescription painkillers.

· Make sure that DNA synthesis companies screen all orders for DNA sequences, watching for those that could be used by criminals to generate opiate-producing yeast.

· Extend current narcotics laws to cover opiate-producing yeast strains

The American Academy of Family Physicians
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