Reporting in the prestigious journal Science this week, researchers from Stanford University have expanded on their previous work to show that yeast engineered with biotechnological methods can produce opioid compounds in days, rather than the months it takes using current methods.


Poppy plants, which naturally produce opioid compounds, can only be grown in regulated fields if they are to be used for pharmaceutical grade medications.  Growing in and shipping from these fields to the pharmaceutical company, where the complicated opioid compound extraction takes place, can take months, with the actual extraction and drug production taking more months still.

Christina Smolke’s group, the senior author on the paper, originally engineered yeast to express the enzyme responsible for the conversion of an inactive opioid compound to the active form.  When put into yeast, they were able to produce opioid compounds but very inefficiently.  By combining 20 different genes from 5 different organisms, Smolke’s group was able to remove the bottleneck and significantly increase opioid production.

While it would still take 4400 gallons of the engineered yeast to produce a dose of a specific opioid pain reliever, Smolke is confident in the future.  “This is only the beginning.  The techniques we developed and demonstrate for opioid pain relievers can be adapted to produce many plant-derived compounds to fight cancers, infectious diseases and chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and arthritis.”

Indeed, yeast and other microorganisms have already been engineered to produce such compounds as insulin for diabetics and artemisinin for treatment of malaria.  Detractors are already claiming this technology will increase the persistence of opioid addiction, but with the International Narcotics Control Board and the UN estimating that 5.5billion people go without necessary pain medication each year, the ease and reproducibility of Smolke’s technology will far outweigh any possible negatives.

Edward Marks is a PhD student at the University of Delaware.  His research involves the healing of myocardial tissue after major cardiac events using nanomedicine techniques, with the goal of pushing any advancement directly into the clinic.  Edward received his BS from Rutgers University and Masters from the University of Delaware.