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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Converting Sugar Into Morphine

The opium poppy, (Papaver somniferum), has long been the source of the most effective pain medication in the world. From the poppy’s seed pod farmers extract opium milk which can be synthesized into morphine, the base ingredient of heroin, as well as the drugs doctors prescribe around the world for moderate to severe pain relief. Over the last seven years, scientists have been working on the formula to create morphine without the opium poppy, The New York Times reports.

Researchers just discovered the last step for brewing heroin’s raw ingredient in genetically modified yeast. Naturally, this achievement raises many concerns about the new found ability of drug companies, as well as drug traffickers, to convert sugar into a drug that has crippled many parts of the world.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), according to a spokesman, “does not perceive an imminent threat” because no modified yeast strain is commonly available yet, the article reports. However, Kenneth A. Oye, a professor of engineering and political science at M.I.T., argues that bioengineered yeast strains should be stored in secure labs. If drug cartels are able to gain access to the opioid producing yeast strain the consequences could be great.

“By providing a simpler — and more manipulable — means of producing opiates, the yeast research could ultimately lead to cheaper, less addictive, safer and more-effective analgesics,” Oye wrote in a commentary. “And in generating a drug source that is self-replicating and easy to grow, conceal and distribute, the work could also transform the illicit opiate marketplace to decentralized, localized production. In so doing, it could dramatically increase people’s access to opiates.”

“All told, decentralized and localized production would almost certainly reduce the cost and increase the availability of illegal opiates — substantially worsening a worldwide problem,” Oye points out.

The new finding was published in Nature Chemical Biology.

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