Last September, a group of researchers from Stanford University discovered a new way to create opioids using two surprising ingredients: sugar and yeast. The study, published in the prestigious journal Science, was the first to successfully produce an opiate without using the opium poppy.
“When we started work a decade ago, many experts thought it would be impossible to engineer yeast to replace the entire farm-to-factory process,” explained senior author and associate professor Christina Smolke in a press release.
Opioids — also known as opiates — are a class of pain medicines that work by activating specific receptors within the brain and other organs. Currently, opioids are the primary method by which clinicians treat severe pain. Some examples of opioids include morphine, methadone, heroin and codeine. All opioids are derived from the opium poppy.
In the study, the researchers strategically inserted snippets of DNA into yeast cells. This DNA was derived from a combination of organisms including bacteria, plants and even rats. With the new DNA, the yeast cells were essentially reprogrammed into an opiate-making assembly line. These new and improved yeast cells could create opioids in just days, even though the traditional process takes a full year.
This study was not the first time the research group attempted to use yeast and sugar to create an opiate. In previous attempts, the researchers were able to genetically engineer yeast cells to carry out portions of the multi-step process for producing opioids from sugar, but they weren’t able to create a strain of yeast that could do the whole process on its own.
Why bother coming up with alternative means of creating opioids? Since opium poppies can only be harvested in certain countries (and under certain environmental conditions), finding a way to create opioids in a lab can make it easier for clinicians to distribute the drug to people in need. It may also be possible to modify the opioids themselves, making them less addictive or less prone to abuse.
“The molecules we produced and the techniques we developed show that it is possible to make important medicines from scratch using only yeast,” said Smolke. “If responsibly developed, we can make and fairly provide medicines to all who need.”
Unfortunately, using genetically modified yeast to create opioids is hardly an efficient process — it would take 4,400 gallons of the yeast to produce a single dose of pain relief. Nevertheless, these results point toward a future in which a variety of plant-based medications can be crafted (or modified) in a lab.
Until opioids are genetically modified to be less addictive, certain individuals will continue to struggle with opioid dependence. The key to managing substance dependence is getting the right treatment.
The Sovereign Health Group applies both technology and counseling to investigate each patient’s neurological state as well as lifestyle issues that could be hampering the path to sobriety. Our clinicians use innovative, evidence-based techniques to help our patients stay happy and healthy. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.