STANFORD, Calif., Aug. 15 (UPI) — A group of researchers at Stanford University have concluded the impending threat of “home brew” opiates like heroin is farther off than expected.
After biochemical engineer Christian Smolke and her team successfully made two opioid compounds, thebaine and hydrocodone, using sugar and engineered yeast, they tested to see if the same feat could be done under home brew conditions.
In a paper published in preprint server bioRxiv, the team concluded it was still impractical for such methods to yield a “meaningful” amount of the medicinal opiate thebaine, if any.
“We observed no production of thebaine and miniscule amounts of reticuline, an upstream biosynthetic intermediate, in home-brew fermentations,” the abstract reads.
“We suggest that additional technical challenges, some of which are unknown and likely unrelated to optimized production in large-volume bioreactors, would need to be addressed for engineered yeast to ever realize home-brew biosynthesis of medicinal opiates at meaningful yields.”
In June, scientists from the University of York in England identified a key gene sequence responsible for the synthesis of opiates — the STORR gene. It was reportedly the last ingredient needed in their quest to create morphine in a lab as opposed to depending on sometimes unstable poppy production.
In order to reach their goal, however, they would need to prompt opiate production using substances such as yeast.
Stanford’s team, led by Smolke, did just that. Although their home brew experiments failed, they did succeed in making opiates using sugar and engineered yeast. Their yields, according to a paper, were minuscule, and would require thousands of gallons of yeast to make a single dose of medicine, according to Smolke.
“Practically you could get more of these compounds from eating a poppy-seed bagel,” she said.
Still, the findings inch scientists closer to creating Western medicine’s favorite painkilling drugs entirely in laboratories. Poppies are one of the most important plants in medicine today, but Smolke says biochemistry done by plants is “inefficient.” Can labs do better?
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