The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 5.5 billion people have little or no access to pain medications. A team of US scientists at Stanford University have revealed that they have discovered an important step towards engineering painkillers from yeast, a process that has raised both hope and concern worldwide.
The study describes how researchers genetically engineered yeast to convert sugar into hydrocodone, an opioid in the same chemical family as morphine, in just three to five days. However, the researchers said that it would take a huge amount a yeast to make just one dose of painkiller.
Typically, it takes more than a year to produce a batch of medicine from poppy plants, which are harvested, processed and shipped to pharmaceutical factories so that the active drug molecules can be extracted and refined. The report said, "The engineered yeast was made with a combination of plant, bacterial, and rodent genes to turn sugar into thebaine, the key opiate precursor to morphine and other powerful painkilling drugs."
Senior author Christina Smolke, an associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford, said, "The molecules we produced and the techniques we developed show that it is possible to make important medicines from scratch using only yeast. If responsibly developed, we can make and fairly provide medicines to all who need."
However, some experts have raised concern about the technology that could facilitate home-brewed heroin and other painkillers. Prescription opioids are addictive and already cause thousands of overdose deaths in the US each year. Other groups of researchers say such technology could make it easier to get painkillers to those in need who do not have access to them around the globe.
Smolke's team said, "We went only so far as to demonstrate a proof of principle, and that it would take 4,400 gallons of bioengineered yeast to make a single dose of painkiller."
The report is published in Science