As easily as some people make beer and wine in their kitchens and garages, in a few years' time we might be seeing home-brewing drug kits. Scientists have just managed to bridge a gap in research that allows them to genetically engineer yeast to potentially produce controlled substances, such as morphine and possibly even heroin, from nothing more complex than sugar.
The UC Berkeley researchers have, for the first time, been able to demonstrate all the individual steps involved in producing opiates in poppies, only in genetically engineered yeast instead. “With our study, all the steps have been described, and it's now a matter of linking them together and scaling up the process. It's not a trivial challenge, but it's doable,” explained John Dueber, co-author of the study published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.
They’ve been able to demonstrate that they can produce one of the nitrogen-containing compounds, or alkaloids, found in opium—called reticuline—from a derivative of glucose, all within yeast. From this, they can potentially produce a whole range of different therapeutic drugs. The alkaloids made by poppies, known formally as the mouthful benzylisoquinoline alkaloids (BIAs), are a class of highly bioactive compounds. This means that they have a strong effect on living tissue.
BIAs are a massive group of around 2,500 molecules isolated from plants, and many show therapeutic properties, from pain relief to antibacterial. They are known to share common biosynthetic pathways, of which the best known are those that lead to the production of morphine, codeine, and other opiates. It is hoped that by being able to replicate these pathways in yeast, researchers will be able to more easily direct the creation of new drugs.
“Plants have slow growth cycles, so it's hard to fully explore all the possible chemicals that can be made from the BIA pathway by genetically engineering the poppy,” explained William DeLoache, lead author of the study. “Moving the BIA pathway to microbes dramatically reduces the cost of drug discovery. We can easily manipulate and tune the DNA of the yeast and quickly test the results.”
The team, however, warn of a possible dark side to this new technology. With Afghanistan producing somewhere in the region of 6,400 tons of opium a year, which can then be turned into heroin, this new process could shift heroin production into the back streets of any city worldwide.
“We're likely looking at a timeline of a couple of years, not a decade or more, when sugar-fed yeast could reliably produce a controlled substance,” said Dueber. “The time is now to think about policies to address this area of research. The field is moving surprisingly fast, and we need to be out in front so that we can mitigate the potential for abuse.”
If someone wanted to start synthesizing these drugs, all they would need is the strain of the specific yeast and a home-brewing fermentation kit. So even before this new tech comes to term, it’s probably already going to be tightly controlled.