Poppy-free Painkillers in the Works from Stanford

Researchers from Stanford University are nearing the end of a decade-long bioengineering project in which yeast creates painkillers without the use of poppies' opium.

After a decade-long effort from Stanford University researchers, opium-free painkillers are close to fruition. The research was published August 24, 2014 in Nature Chemical Biology.

Instead of using poppy plants to procure opium, bioengineers have created a way to use the DNA from yeast and coax it into producing non-opioid-based analgesics. It is similar to the process of brewing beer in fermentation vats.

“We are now very close to replicating the entire opioid production process in a way that eliminates the need to grow poppies, allowing us to reliably manufacture essential medicines while mitigating the potential for diversion to illegal use,” study leader and associate professor Christina Smolke, PhD, said in a press release.

The bioengineers added 5 different genes from 2 different poppy plants and bacterium that lives on poppies to the yeast cells. From the combination, the investigators worked on replicating 2 separate processes: how nature produces opium in poppies, and how pharmacologists use chemical processes to refine opium for painkillers.

Today, poppies are legally farmed in only a few countries — such as Australia, France, Hungary, India, Spain, and Turkey — and are used to create 3 main opiate classes: codeine, thebaine, and morphine. The poppies are strictly supervised by the International Narcotics Control Board, especially to prevent poppies from being refined into illegal heroin. As the United States is not a hotbed for poppy farming, pharmaceutical companies are dependent on imports to create their products.

When the researchers began in 2004, the chemical process went about halfway. By 2008, a paper published by Smolke and the team confirmed the yeast produced a precursor to thebaine. Now, the sugar developed from the yeast must continue the process to create thebaine.

Though it could take several more years for the researchers to fully forge the steps from yeast to painkillers such as thebaine, the lab is working on producing large-scale batches of opioids. The goal is to create pharmacologically-identical drugs. Smolke confirmed this process — which includes 17 chemical steps from poppy to pill — is already in the works.

“This will allow us to create a reliable supply of these essential medicines in a way that doesn't depend on years leading up to good or bad crop yields,” Smolke concluded. “We'll have more sustainable, cost-effective and secure production methods for these important drugs.”