Is this the beginning of home-brewed heroin? Scientists have come to an alarming — to some — discovery that involves drawing narcotics out of strains of yeast.
Drugs known as opioids have only been derived from the opium poppy up until now, but a Stanford laboratory has been searching for a yeast-based alternatives, according to a New York Times report.
They are being closely watched by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. If their research is successful, it could provide an alternative to illicit drugs that are used legally only in a medical environment as painkillers or cough suppressants. Such a finding would make such treatment not only less expensive but also more predictable than drugs derived from poppies.
About 10 years ago, scientists at Berkeley were able to do something similar, adding multiple genes to yeast until it caused the precursor to artemisinin, which is the most effective drug for malaria which previous had to be grown from wormwood shrugs. Now, bioengineered yeast is behind much of the world’s artemisinin.
So these scientists decided to try the same thing with narcotics — however, not everyone is happy about the research. Some experts have expressed concern that this will simply help drug traffickers instead of pharmaceutical companies, as there are plenty of legal drugs coming from legal poppy fields that are perfectly inexpensive.
The FBI and drug officials aren’t stepping in yet as the technology is far enough along, but they are keeping an eye on its development.
The team created the narcotic-like substance by injecting 23 genes into yeast and causing it to produce enzymes that produce thebaine and hydrocodone — a very complicate procedure. Thebaine can be converted into oxycodone, which is the primary ingredient in OxyContin. Hydrocodone is also a pain reliever used in Vicodin.
In any event, it will be years before we seem home-brewed heroin. But it certainly represents a new frontier for medical technology.