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Should We be Worried About Lab-Grown Opium?

A bulk of today’s narcotic painkillers and cough suppressants are made from flowers known as opium poppies. Thanks to the opiate addiction epidemic, high-volume manufacturing has all but wiped out the natural supply of poppies. As a result, the pharmaceutical industry is on edge. And while drug companies are scrambling to set up new poppy grow locations, a group of researchers claim they’ve found a way to produce opium without the help of mother nature.

Cloning Opiates in a Lab

For several years, Stanford University’s Christina Smolke has been at the forefront of opiate research and development. And it looks like the hard work might be paying off. Smolke and her colleagues are well on their way to figuring out how to produce opiates from genetically engineered yeasts.

The latest findings, published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, indicate the team was able to engineer (or modify) yeasts, then synthesize them into a complex precursor of opiates.

Details of the Study

This project was an extension of Smolke’s work conducted in 2008, when she inserted a number of genes into yeasts and ultimately made them turn simple sugar molecules into a precursor of opiates.

Smolke believes that, under lab conditions, a 1,000-liter tank (of yeast) could produce as much morphine as 100 acres of poppies.The final step is to figure out how they can get the yeast to turn salutardine into thebaine, which would officially make an opiate product to rival mother nature’s own finished product.

Smolke believes that under lab conditions, a 1,000-liter tank could produce as much morphine as 100 acres of poppies. The opiates could also be of a higher quality.

“It is difficult or impossible to secure many thousands of acres of poppy fields which are grown out in the open,” she says. “Yeast will be grown in closed fermenters and can be kept in secure facilities.”

How will this Impact Us?

So, what kind of impact will this scientific discovery have outside the academic world? That’s a good question, but no one seems to have an answer just yet.

Don’t expect natural opium plants to be replaced anytime soon. According to Tim Bowser, head of opiate research and development at GlaxoSmithKline, Smolke’s method would need to be just as effective and done inexpensively in order for it to be conducted at a wider level.

The Great Poppy Race

Afghanistan is currently responsible for 90 percent of the world’s opium. A report released last October by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that local farmers produced a record number of opium poppies in 2007.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Afghanistan is dealing with widespread opiate addiction problems throughout the country.

The number of Afghans using heroin and other opiates doubled from 800,000 in 2005 to 1.6 million in 2009. With a dismal number of treatment options and just 28,000 beds available in Afghanistan’s rehab facilities, the growing opiate addiction is particularly dangerous.

Photo Source: istock