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Modified Yeast Means Better Painkillers and Bigger Risk

A scientific breakthrough could create more effective, less addictive opiates. But there’s a catch.

image via (cc) flickr user quinnanya

When most people think of brewing with yeast, they think of beer. Scientists, however, have a whole different goal in mind: Using the fungal microorganisms to create opiates with increased effectiveness accompanied by a decreased risk of addiction. It’s a goal that came one step closer to reality recently, as researchers announced a breakthrough in the process by which modified yeast could begin producing morphine out of simple sugar. This means, explain experts, that for the first time in history, “[a]ll of the steps needed to create a pathway in yeast capable of producing morphine from glucose have now been realized.”


image via (cc) flickr user restlessglobetrotter

For biochemists, analgesic specialists, and drug companies alike, news of the breakthrough—published in Nature Chemical Biology—raises the possibility that opiate painkillers, such as morphine and oxycodone, could someday soon be harvested from yeast cultures rather than from fields of poppies. What’s more, they could potentially be harvested in such a way as to accentuate desirable features, such as enhanced effectiveness, while damping down on unwanted aspects, such as addictive qualities. As John Dueber, the study’s author, explains to Wired:

“It’s hard to add or subtract genes into the [poppy] plant, and plants grow very slowly [...] Whereas, we can easily put in different DNA and change combinations of genes in yeast—and yeast can double every two hours.”

But while yeast-based opiates may someday revolutionize the world of pain management, experts worry that the relative biochemical ease with which these may someday be created could bring about a new wave of illicit narcotics: Homebrew heroin. Again, Dueber in Wired:

“Right now, you would need a background in synthetic biology and genetics to overcome the challenges to produce the right kind of yeast. It is not an imminent threat. But if a strain made for licit purposes got out, then all that would be required is knowledge of brewing beer to ferment it into morphine.”

It’s enough of a concern that policy experts have begun exploring both the implications of, and means to control, the possibility that hard opiates could someday be cultivated at home. Kenneth Oye, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, helped author a commentary discussing what could, and should, happen to ensure safe progress in this area. Speaking with MIT News, he points out that yeast-based opiates open a third channel for narcotics distribution, beyond prescription (as in the case of morphine, oxycodone, etc) and international drug trafficking. Accordingly, he recommends a series of safeguards to ensure “homebrewing” does not become a crisis:

First, we [Oye, Tania Bubela of Concordia University, and Chappell Lawson of MIT] recommend adjustments in the design of yeast strains to limit illicit appeal. These measures included producing end-products with less appeal for illicit use, making yeast strains harder to cultivate, and creating markers to enable easy detection of opiate-producing strains. Second, we recommend basic lab security measures and personnel checks to limit the likelihood of theft or sale of opiate-producing strains from academic labs. Third, we recommend measures to make it harder for criminal organizations to engineer yeast strains … by asking gene-synthesis consortiums and firms to screen orders by adding opiate-producing, nonpathogenic yeast strains to current blacklists of pathogens. Fourth, we recommend changes in domestic regulations, including licensing of opiate-producing yeast strains and activation of international consultation mechanisms in the International Narcotics Control Board and the International Expert Group on Biosecurity and Biosafety Regulation.

The design of more efficient, less harmful ways to help people manage pain is both a noble and tempting pursuit. It is also one fraught with risk. But, with careful planning and deliberate safeguarding, yeast-based painkillers could someday—perhaps someday soon—bring relief to those who need it most.