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Chemists develop process that may end illegal opiates

Opium and drugs derived from poppies that produce opium has been both a benefactor and a scourge to mankind for thousands of years. A team of researchers from Stanford University led by Associate Professor of Bioengineering Christina Smolke have developed a methodology of producing opiate drugs that require no poppies after 10 years of work. The development was presented in the Aug. 24, 2014, issue of the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

Stanford Bioengineer Christina Smolke has been on a decade-long quest to genetically alter yeast so they can "brew" opioid medicines in stainless steel vats, eliminating the need to raise poppies.
Credit: Poppy image created by Rachel Sakai

Opiates derived from opium are the best pain killers known. The same drugs are also some of the most deadly drugs of abuse. The scientists have developed a species of yeast that is genetically altered to make opiate drugs directly in large quantities without the need for opium producing poppies. The process can make specific opiate drugs like codeine or OxyContin directly without any intermediate processing steps. The yeast performs all 17 steps necessary in the conversion of opium from poppies to any opiate drug.

Several countries are presently allowed to grow poppies to be used in the manufacture of legal opiate drugs by the International Narcotics Control Board. Afghanistan is a major source of illegal poppy production that feeds the heroin market in Europe and the United States. Smolke’s development could allow the U. S. in Afghanistan to obliterate the poppy industry that not only supplies illegal drugs to the West but supports terrorists with the income from the sale of poppies and heroin.

The development allows a potential to end a major source of death from drugs and terrorists. The development will also produce a reliable supply of opiate drugs that is not dependent on a plant or the international dependencies and vulnerabilities in the supply of opiate drugs. The process can make every opiate drug that is presently legally used for medical purposes in the United States and Europe.