Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

AdChoices

To defang the poppy's kiss Add to ...

In Afghanistan and Myanmar, the world's two leading producers of opium poppies destined for the illicit heroin trade, officials show how seriously they take the war on drugs by seizing plants and burning them publicly.

In Canada, the battle is being fought in the lab.

Researchers at the University of Calgary are trying to genetically modify opium poppies, scientifically known as Papaver somniferum, to make them more virile in the production of codeine, but at the same time render them impotent in the creation of morphine, the key ingredient in heroin.

The potential one-two punch is attracting attention from a variety of corners -- the private sector, research foundations and even the U.S. government.

"If they could produce it, it would definitely be of interest," said Brian Blake, a spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy at the White House, keen to eradicate heroin production.

But the scientists are still years away from concocting a new plant. Their genetic engineering is cutting-edge, yet complex. But getting the science to work may, in fact, be the easy part. Observers say the economics and politics of bringing it to market could prove to be much bigger obstacles.

If successful, the research could bring higher yields of codeine, which is used to make various over-the-counter and widely prescribed painkillers, at a lower production cost, a boon to the pharmaceutical industry. Morphine, usually reserved for cases of chronic pain, is easily converted into dangerously addictive heroin. Most codeine sold now is synthesized from morphine, but that could become unnecessary with the new poppy.

It could also offer an alternative crop to the impoverished farmers growing opium poppies now.

Afghanistan accounted for 70 per cent of the world production of opiates in 1999, a harvest of about 4,600 tonnes of opium, according to the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention. Despite a Taliban-ordered ban on cultivation, a policy that has now been adopted by the new government, the UN has predicted Afghan opium production this year will still reach as much as 2,700 tonnes. The other major players in the illegal opium trade are Myanmar (formerly Burma), Colombia, Laos and, to a lesser extent, Mexico, Pakistan and Thailand.

During a conference on illegal drugs held in Kabul last month, Hamid Karzai, president of the Afghan Transitional Authority, said that without alternative ways to make a living, there would be no reason for farmers to kick their dependence on opium poppy profits. The international community promised to help find new crops, Mr. Karzai said, but the world has not delivered.

That's where the scientists in Calgary hope to step in.

"If [the poppies]cannot produce the morphine, but still produce some useful alkaloid -- codeine -- then maybe we can help some social problems," said research associate Dr. Sang-Un Park.

When Dr. Park opens two large growth chambers locked in a basement at the University of Calgary, a funky odour fills the small room. Inside these temperature-, humidity- and light-controlled cells, dozens of opium poppies are in various stages of growth.

Health Canada has given the researchers a licence to grow the plants under the supervision of Dr. Peter Facchini, the lead scientist on the project, who has been studying opium poppies for a decade.

Dr. Facchini's team is trying to understand how the plant makes the alkaloids found in the milky opium and, ultimately, how to modify the process by blocking or adding genetic material.

The poppy plant, Dr. Facchini explains, takes two molecules of a common amino acid called tyrosine, sends them down a metabolic pathway through a series of 17 or 18 steps, and different enzymes manipulate them along the way.

The second-to-last step in the process makes codeine. The last makes morphine. But the plant converts the codeine so efficiently that morphine accounts for about 95 per cent of the alkaloids, he says.

The researchers are trying to engineer the plant to knock out morphine biosynthesis and end the pathway at codeine.

They could also create a metabolic diversion of the pathway by introducing a new enzyme into the plant. That new branch in the pathway could prompt the production of a new substance.

Alternatively, they may try to enhance the production of an existing metabolite, which would cause the plant to create more codeine.

Dr. Facchini likens what's taking place in his laboratories to shooting for a target in a darkened room. "We have to be able to go into this pitch-black room with a shotgun and at least turn the light on so we know where to shoot," he said. "Right now, we're not at that stage, but we're developing the tools to get there."

Backers include private contracts with international opium-poppy growers, as well as the federal government through a Canada Research Chair and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the federally funded Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Alberta Ingenuity Fund, an arm's-length agency set up by the provincial government.

Bill Bridger, president of the Ingenuity Fund, said the research has more than just solid science behind it: "This is a very obvious case where it's not only commercial application, but the good-of-mankind kind of applications."

Abolishing Afghanistan's narcotic trade, which helped to finance the Taliban and may still be funding terrorism, is clearly high on the current international agenda. The UN is monitoring production and during the recent G8 meeting, British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged his fellow leaders to help eliminate the crop within 10 years.

But persuading farmers to give it up may not be easy. According to the UN, about 500,000 people have been involved in trafficking Afghan opiates in recent years with a value of about $25-billion (U.S.) annually. Codeine, though certainly safer, is not likely to be as lucrative.

The issue, said the White House's Mr. Blake, is, "How can we help people that are struggling and are growing drugs because they need the money and make them realize, 'Hey, this is a better crop.' And make it profitable."

Professor Clayton Mosher of Washington State University, a keen observer of drug policy, said modified poppies could be a practical weapon in the war on drugs, but he also offered a caveat.

"In the real world of drug policy," said Prof. Mosher, "I can imagine that the UN and the World Health Organization and most particularly the Americans would probably say, 'This isn't any solution, because the real issue is consciousness alteration. This isn't really solving the problem, because we still have drug use.' "

Dr. Facchini was silent a moment when asked about the applications of his team's work. "There's politics and economics and many other things involved in these ideas," he said. "The only thing that I can help with is the science."

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail

 

Next Story

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular