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Discovery Paves New Path for Opioid Production

Could benefit medicine but researchers warn of potential to create illegal drugs

TUESDAY, May 19, 2015 (HealthDay News) — A new study published online May 18 in Nature Chemical Biology describes all but one step of an engineered yeast pathway that can convert glucose into a “microbial factory” for producing morphine and potentially other drugs, including antibiotics and cancer therapeutics.

Scientists are rapidly closing in on a way to create a new strain of yeast that would, through fermentation, convert corn syrup into an opiate similar to codeine or morphine, John Dueber, Ph.D., an assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of California in Berkeley, told HealthDay. A concerted effort by researchers could make yeast-derived opioids a reality within two to three years, he said.

The new yeast could be of tremendous benefit to medicine, allowing for production of cheaper pain medications that are potentially more effective and less addictive, Dueber said. The yeast also could be engineered to create other medications based on molecules derived from poppy flowers, including antibiotics or cancer drugs. But if the yeast got into the wrong hands, it would provide an easy and inexpensive source for illegal opioids, he added.

Realizing the potential for abuse, researchers are urging policymakers at the National Science Foundation and elsewhere to create strategies in advance that would deter illicit use. These could include laws and regulations that tightly control access to the yeast, as well as work in the lab to make the yeast less appealing to drug abusers, Kenneth Oye, Ph.D., told HealthDay. Oye is the director of policy and practices at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

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