People with pain, of which there are an abundance, swear by hydrocodone, an opioid obtained from poppies. Yes, those poppies. But what if you could make the stuff without having to go to the very same plants that support the heroin trade? It’s actually been done, on a small scale:
Over the past several months, scientists from around the world have published bits and pieces of a fascinating feat: In an effort to create pain medication components like hydrocodone the main ingredient in the pain killer Vicodin without the help of poppies, scientists have engineered simple baker’s yeast to synthesize these medicinal compounds from sugar. One by one, labs figured out how to get the yeast to turn A into B, and B into C, Y into Z, and so on and so forth.
Now, for the first time, researchers at Stanford University have done it from start to finish. In a paper published Thursday in Science, they report the successful synthesis of hydrocodone from sugar, thanks to genetically engineered yeast.
Opioids are the primary drugs used in Western medicine for pain management and palliative care. Farming of opium poppies remains the sole source of these essential medicines despite diverse market demands and uncertainty in crop yields due to weather, climate change, and pests. Here, we engineered yeast to produce the selected opioid compounds thebaine and hydrocodone starting from sugar. All work was conducted in a laboratory that is permitted and secured for work with controlled substances. We combined enzyme discovery, enzyme engineering, and pathway and strain optimization to realize full opiate biosynthesis in yeast. The resulting opioid biosynthesis strains required expression of 21 (thebaine) and 23 (hydrocodone) enzyme activities from plants, mammals, bacteria, and yeast itself. This is a proof-of-principle, and major hurdles remain before optimization and scale up could be achieved. Open discussions of options for governing this technology are also needed in order to responsibly realize alternative supplies for these medically relevant compounds.
I interpret that last sentence as “Those who wage the War On [Some] Drugs will have a coronary if this technology becomes widespread.” To them, Schedule II is the Voice of God.
Tangential: Apparently all five members of the research team four are pictured at the WaPo link are women.