According to a new study, scientists have achieved the feat of making opioids without the use of poppies, replacing them with the bio-engineered baker’s yeast. If the new approach proves commercially successful, researchers believe the industry of painkilling medicine could be revolutionized.
The pain medication business currently brings a multibillion-dollar profit, but it is believed that other plant-based medicines could be created by using a similar approach, new treatments that could prove therapeutic for cancer, chronic illnesses and various infectious diseases.
According to the research, the sugar in the yeasts was genetically transformed and converted into hydrocodone and thebaine opioids, a process of alteration that took up to five days to be completed.
Hydrocodone is crucial to painkillers because its main function is to shut down our brain’s pain receptors, acting in the same way as morphine and oxycodone would. Both of these medicines are produced from opium poppy, but while it takes over a year to complete the process in this way, the new yeast-approach takes only 3-5 days.
For the manufacturing of the baker’s yeast, scientists used 23 genes from 6 different sources: opium poppy, Iranian poppy, goldthread herb, California poppy, Pseudomonas putida and brown rat. The impressive feat was to prove that bioengineered yeast is enough to produce opioid painkillers from scratch.
There’s still an obstacle that stands in the way of commercial success; in order to produce a single dose of medication, researchers estimated they need 4,400 gallons of bioengineered yeast, which means that more research is required so the product can become accessible to more patients.
Senior author of the study Christina Smolke, an associate professor of bioengineering at the Stanford University, explains that developing this technique is only the beginning, because many more applications can be found for it.
Smolke is positive that narcotic pain relievers can also be produced from other plant-based medicines, and that fighting chronic diseases, cancers and infectious conditions can become an easier struggle for medical professionals and patients alike.
Next step is finding a way to develop a responsible approach to producing the yeast-based painkillers, Smolke added, which would mean to provide medicines to all in need. That’s why the bioengineering professor called on other researchers and policymakers to come together and ensure that the production of bio-based treatment has a chance to grow in a responsible way.
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