Earlier this year, we saw a series of news reports and scientific papers warn that soon we might get “home brew heroin” i.e. opiate drugs brewed with yeast, exactly in the same way wine or beer is brewed.
Advancements in the field of bioengineering have allowed researchers to comprehend the complex procedures taking place within poppy plants that turn sugar into morphine. Based on those findings, the researchers started tweaking genes of yeast for triggering similar reactions in laboratory settings.
Reports obtained till June suggested that the scientists had already identified all the steps of allowing similar reactions to take place in a laboratory, and just was waiting to string all of them together.
Last Thursday, a research team representing the Stanford University reported that they have succeeded in making opiates in the laboratory using yeast. They have used engineered yeast for making a couple of opioid compounds, hydrocodone and thebaine.
Since almost a decade, Christina Smolke, a biochemical engineer, and her colleagues have been working with the aim of preparing opioids and several other plant-based medications in lab settings. According to Smolke, pharmaceutical production is the main challenge for people like her.
She added that she was thoroughly impressed by the molecules synthesized by plants. According to her, plants can do truly amazing biochemistry. However, she also pointed out that the procedures adopted by plants are inefficient and cannot be compared with procedures used in high-quality production facilities.
Smolke and her colleagues were hoping to provide the world with a more effective way of making the molecules; for instance, a process that would allow people to use yeast in batches. If the lab based production approach works, factors like disease and weather will not have any impact on the manufacturing process. This will allow hundreds of thousands people around the globe without enough access to painkillers to get hold of medicines they require. Also, the process might also pave the way to the formulation of more effective medications.
However, there are quite a few technical problems that are still to be overcome. The most significant one among them is that reports are suggesting that scientists are yet to identify all the steps of formation of morphine from glucose within poppy plants.
They also don’t know how poppy turns (S)-reticuline into (R)-reticuline. The process was described in the study published earlier this year. However, Smolke and her team adopted a different approach. They checked DNA databases to find out how that method worked.
Other than preparing the drug in lab settings, Smolke and two of her colleagues also tried to prepare opiates in normal homebrew conditions. However, under such conditions, the yeast couldn’t produce the compound in a detectable amount.