A group of scientists from Stanford University found that they can create opium-based pain killers and anti-cough drugs from bioengineered strains of yeast, rather than from poppy seeds as they are usually manufactured.
Nevertheless, the team’s work was closely monitored by both FBI’s Drug Enforcement Administration and big pharma groups since these opium-based medications are known to be very addictive and may be exploited by illegal drug makers.
Supporters of the bioengineered yeast-based medications claim that the new technology will help drug makers create cheaper and more predictable pain relievers than traditional methods.
Bioengineered yeast, however, was first used in producing drugs a decade ago, when Berkeley researchers managed to genetically tweak yeast and obtain a copy of artemisinin, the only drug that actually fights off malaria.
Before that moment, artemisinin was grown in sweet wormwood shrubs, which took more time and money than artificially producing it in a laboratory. Currently, most of artemisinin stocks worldwide are produced from genetically modified yeast.
On the other hand, critics have argued that the new discovery may benefit more drug dealers than pharmas. Plus, there’s no need for a cheaper drug since drug manufacturers have already at their disposal large amounts of cheap poppy seeds in Europe, Australia, India, Turkey and in many other locations.
But scientists argued that there would be years before drug traffickers could produce illegal drugs from yeast. Researchers argue that the GM yeast is 100,000 times weaker than poppies. So, currently they would need 4,400 gallons of modified yeast for a single pill of Vicodin.
Christina Smolke, the head of the Stanford team, said that it would be cheaper for anybody wanting to produce opiods to buy poppy seeds. On the other hand, she admitted that technology is getting better at an unprecedented rate, so GM yeast could match the efficiency of poppy by 2018.
The FBI said that the work of the Stanford team has the potential of being exploited by drug traffickers. But the agency would become really worried when the technology becomes commercially available.
Kenneth Oye, a MIT professor who warned against bioengineered opiods, was relieved that the research team at least didn’t try to obtain morphine, which can also be derived from poppy seeds.
Researchers were only able to obtain thebaine and hydrocodone, two chemicals largely used in modern-day pain relievers. Scientists explained that the former cannot be used as an illegal drug since it is poisonous, while the latter doesn’t have the ‘high’ effect of other chemical substances.
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