Yeast Fungus Can be Painkillers

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Aug 14, 2015 07:06 AM EDT

Stanford scientists have discovered a new and faster method of turning bioengineered baker's yeast into opioids. Until the discovery, the painkillers were only derived from opium poppies.

According to a paper published in the journal Science, researchers have successfully extracted narcotic opioid compounds, hydrocodone and thebaine from genetically engineered baker's yeast as fast as three to five days. Extracting opioids from opium poppies can take more than a year.

"This is only the beginning," Bioengineering professor Christina Smolke, co-author of the study, said via Stanford News. "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."

Hydrocodone is an opiate derived from opium poppies and is primarily used in pain medicationlike Vicodin, according to Meanwhile, thebaine is a paramorphine that is usually incorporated in oxycodone and oxymorphone, according to Drugs-Forum.

The engineered yeast from Stanford scientists has been modified to make enzymes that will transform sugar into other chemicals. However, the new method needs to be refined before it can spur out commercial grade opioids.

"We essentially put DNA into the yeast cells that give it the instructions to build a chemical assembly line process that ends with the medicines we want," Dr. Smolke, told Washington Post. "After reading the "instructions" in its DNA, the cell will produce protein molecules that can take sugar from the environment, break it down, and rebuild it into the drugs - in the same general way that yeast usually breaks sugar down and turns it into alcohol."

Dr. Smolke and colleagues inserted 23 genes from six organisms into the baker's yeast including the Iranian poppy, California poppy, opium poppy, goldthread herb, the brown rat, and a soil bacterium Pseudomonas putida, according to Reuters.

Due to this discovery, acquisition of raw materials and creation of painkillers and other medication could be less costly.

"This is important because, with further development, it may provide an alternative supply for these essential medicines and allow greater access for most of the global population that currently has insufficient access to pain medication," Dr. Smolke said in the Reuters article.

Some experts are concerned that drug traffickers may use the process to create illicit drugs, according to The New York Times.

However, Dr. Smolke said in another article by the NY Times that the new technology is still unrefined and that it would take more than 4,000 gallons of yeast to produce a decent amount of hydrocodone in one Vicodin tablet.

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