Isolating the opiate gene: Pharmaceutical breakthrough or the next big drug nightmare?
Researchers have recently identified a gene in the poppy plant known as STORR, which aids the poppy plant in producing opiates. This new discovery indicates that it could only be a matter of time before scientists will be able to manufacture opiates solely using this gene. While this could mean a great deal of potential for the pharmaceutical industry, researchers are wary that the discovery could lead to the creation of more home-based operations for manufacturing opiates.
A team of researchers from the University of York in England and the British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline announced their discovery in a study published in the journal Science. The gene STORR produces the chemical required to make opiates like morphine and heroin. This gene was discovered when the researchers introduced random mutations into numerous poppy plants and examined the changes. The TechTimes reported that three plants stood out from the rest and were found to all have the same genetic mutation.
Ian Graham, researcher at the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products at the University of York and senior author of the study, explained to the LA Times, “The publication of this gene provides the missing link for the production of morphine in yeast — there’s no doubt about it … I think it’s only a matter of time before there is a proof-of-concept demonstration in yeast that this can happen.”
A paper was also recently published in Nature Chemical Biology, in which a team of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley announced that they were able to turn sugar into morphine using genetically mutated yeast. In their research, they found that the STORR gene was believed to be the final step required to complete this process.
Could this discovery be a good thing?
Having the ability to develop and alter opiates at the genetic level may allow scientists to produce safer and more effective means of treating chronic pain in patients. John Deuber, a bioengineer and lead author of the UC Berkeley study, says that by bypassing certain processes to convert opium into morphine, prescription opioids could even be engineered to be less addictive.
What are the costs?
Unfortunately, while this discovery is potentially a good thing for the pharmaceutical industry, it could also prove troublesome for law enforcement if this knowledge enters the wrong hands. The discovery of the STORR genes has left skeptics wondering how it might affect the illegal drug trade, potentially paving the way for a spike in illegal opiate production. Deuber notes that the gene isolation process does involve a variety of equipment, which is not normally available to the general public; however, he also recognizes the potential of this new discovery for abuse: “An additional concern is that once the knowledge of how to create an opiate-producing strain is out there, anyone trained in basic molecular biology could theoretically build it.”
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 2 million people in the U.S. struggle with addiction to prescription painkillers. The use of prescription painkillers has quadrupled in the U.S. since 1990 and many states have started implementing some form of a prescription drug monitoring to fight this problem.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has been observant of these new developments. The administration’s laboratory director Jeff Comparin, has explained that the organization does not “perceive an imminent threat” but will be prepared to face the challenges if a home-based heroin production does take place.
Overall, this new discovery marks a huge scientific breakthrough in the field of pharmaceutical research. It could allow more research to be conducted on alternative means of manufacturing opiate-derivative medications and may even provide the medical community with less addictive means of pain management.
Opiate abuse leaves millions of Americans feeling hopeless as they risk their lives for the sake of an addiction. However strong opiate addiction may be, recovery is possible. Sovereign Health Group offers a variety of inpatient and outpatient treatment programs across the nation, helping patients deal with addiction, mental health disorders and dual diagnosis conditions. If you know someone who is struggling with addiction and is in need of treatment, please do not hesitate to call. To find out more about our programs you can talk to a member of our team over the phone or through our online chat. Our treatment specialist will assist you in finding the right treatment option for you.
Written by Benjamin Creekmore, Sovereign Health Group writer