It was in pharmacy school that I learned of the opium poppy. The opium poppy is the basis for a large number of analgesics, that is pain-killers. Morphine, codeine, papaverine, and heroin are all derived from the opium poppy, and thus where we get the name by which we call this group of drugs opiates.
Now through bioengineering, researchers at Stanford University have discovered a way to produce morphine using brewer’s yeast, bacteria, rodent genes, and the opium poppy. The yeast cells are engineered to produce morphine. This is good news. Analgesics could be made simply and with less cost, with hopes of ultimately reducing medication costs to the patient. It is also hoped that the yeast pathway can lead to other pain-killers that could be more potent while being less addictive.
Jens Nielsen, a biologist at Chalmers University in Sweden declares “This is a major milestone.”
The stellar work and major milestones have cause for concern, however. Work needs to be done to assure this technology does not get into the hands of illicit drug producers. Chemically, it is easy to produce heroin out of morphine.
This high-minded efforts by scientists can lead to further research and bioengineering of other plant based drugs. Several cancer medications, cardiac drugs, and other analgesics are derived from plants. Yet this new technology should not stop with plants. Chemicals are being isolated and studied from several species of marine life. Bioengineering can surely find its way in working in these areas as well.