Canadian researchers have unlocked the genetic secrets of the poppy plant, raising the possibility of making powerful narcotics from simple raw materials.
Building on the discovery of two elusive genes that enable the opium poppy to make morphine and codeine, researchers inserted synthetic versions of those genes into yeast and coaxed it to produced the potent painkillers.
It is an important step in a Canadian project that aims to produce the analgesics from a cheap raw material like sugar, says the University of Calgary's Peter Facchini, who along with his research team member Jillian Hagel discovered the genes. They collaborate with Concordia University's Vincent Martin, who genetically modified yeast to produce the narcotics.
While obstacles remain, the work raises profound ethical and social issues. It could lead to a cheaper source of codeine, an over-the counter painkiller that is too expensive for many people in the developing world.
But there is also a risk it could offer an inexpensive new source of illicit, more powerful drugs like heroin, which is made from morphine.
"It is a typical dilemma of dual-use technologies," says University of Calgary communications professor Edna Einsiedel, one of several researchers looking at the implications of the federally funded experiments. Nuclear technology, for example, can produce medical isotopes, electricity, or nuclear weapons.
"While one can try to rely on regulation, there is of course no guarantee about a technology falling into the wrong hands or used for nefarious purposes," she says.
The opium poppy is the only plant in the world that makes morphine and codeine, says Dr. Facchini. Both compounds are found in opium, the dried milky sap produced by poppy plants.
Afghanistan produces 90 per cent of the world's opium. The coalition of Western countries with troops and aid workers in the country has tried various means to eradicate the crop, with mixed results.
Other countries, including France and Australia, legally grow poppies to make analgesics.
Since morphine was first isolated from opium more than 200 years ago, people have been trying to piece together the complicate process by which the plants make the drug.
Dr. Facchini has been working for more than 18 years on the plant and the identification of the genes that make opium poppies so different from closely-related species. These two were particularly hard to find, and have chemical composition that is far different than many scientists in the field expected.
One of the ultimate goals of the research is to use that information to create a yeast that makes morphine and codeine from sugar or other cheap raw materials, but the researchers say they aren't there yet.
They have to feed the yeast thebaine, a substance produced by the opium poppy. The plant transforms most of the thebaine it produces into codeine and morphine.
The genetically modified yeast is able to do the same thing.
"The yields are not through the roof, not commercial levels. But it is proof of concept," says Dr. Martin.
To get the yeast to make morphine from scratch, Dr. Facchini needs to find a few additional poppy genes that are involved earlier in the process.
"Almost the entire pathway is now known," he says. "There are still a couple of more genes we are working on."
Dr. Facchini and Dr. Hagel published their report about the two new genes in the recent edition of the journal Nature Chemical Biology.
But the researchers have not yet published results about the yeast that can produce morphine and codeine.
The cultivation of opium poppies is currently the only legal sources of morphine and codeine, as well as semi-synthetic drugs like oxycodone.
Morphine, still a staple of modern medicine, is usually administered intravenously. Codeine is much less potent. It is produced is small quantities by opium poppies, but is usually derived from morphine.
Most of the world's codeine is consumed in six countries, including Canada, says Dr. Facchini.
"There are whole parts of the world, Africa and other developing nations, who don't have access."