Now that narcotic drugs can be coaxed from yeast, debates have sparked about whether or not this method should be further studied and the made available to the larger public. Scientists are throwing arguments from both sides and it’s easy for the matter to become complicated to the average reader.
Pain-relievers, also known as narcotics, or, more commonly, painkillers, are a widely-available treatment that people usually can become addicted to. This is because of the nature of pain killing medicine, literally. Painkillers are usually made from substances found or derived from opium poppies, and thus also carry the name opioids.
You may well remember that opium was a very widely used drug, and still is today. Albeit more obscure in the current century, it was the drug of choice for many literary figures – E. A. Poe would be the obvious example, and if you read his stories, you’ll understand why. This newest discovery that opiate compounds can be genetically engineered in yeast has put a scare on quite many researchers, since it could lead to an exponential rise of the heroin market.
Scientists at Stanford, led by Dr. Christina D. Smolke, used a number of genes to modify yeast so that the sugar in it would be able to convert itself into other, more useful chemicals. Yeast engineering is nothing new, as the currently existing most successful malaria drug has at its basis a genetically engineered yeast compound discovered by scientists at Berkeley University. This was more than a decade ago.
However, the new experiment has sparked controversy precisely due to what the scientists were trying to make: painkillers and cough suppressants. Experts in the field now fear that the same process can be used to make heroin. Still, it is unlikely.
The method, however ingenious and potentially revolutionary, is still largely inefficient. The experiment is limited to a lab. Smolke said that they tried to recreate the experiment in home conditions and were completely unsuccessful. Moreover, to make enough hydrocodone for a single Vicodin pill, one would need 4,400 gallons of genetically engineered yeast.
Dr. Smolke said the concerns are unjustified, as a drug maker could easily buy poppy from a nearby store and make far more heroin than if he would try it with yeast. And the FBI, speaking through a spokesperson, agrees with her, and says that worry would be justified only when the technology would advance into commercial purposes.
Still, Dr. Smolke and her all-woman team did take some precautions, and did not try to make morphine, one of the most addictive type of painkillers, as it would’ve encouraged illegal drug cartels to pursue this method.
Image source: nyt.com