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Stanford bioengineers close to brewing opioid painkillers without using opium from poppies

For centuries poppy plants have been grown to provide opium, the compound from which morphine and other important medicines such as oxycodone are derived.

Now bioengineers at Stanford have hacked the DNA of yeast, reprograming these simple cells to make opioid-based medicines via a sophisticated extension of the basic brewing process that makes beer.

Led by Associate Professor of Bioengineering Christina Smolke, the Stanford team has already spent a decade genetically engineering yeast cells to reproduce the biochemistry of poppies with the ultimate goal of producing opium-based medicines, from start to finish, in fermentation vats.

"We are now very close to replicating the entire opioid production process in a way that eliminates the need to grow poppies, allowing us to reliably manufacture essential medicines while mitigating the potential for diversion to illegal use," said Smolke, who outlines her work in the August 24th edition of Nature Chemical Biology.

In the new report Smolke and her collaborators, Kate Thodey, a post-doctoral scholar in bioengineering, and Stephanie Galanie, a doctoral student in chemistry, detail how they added five genes from two different organisms to yeast cells. Three of these genes came from the poppy itself, and the others from a bacterium that lives on poppy plant stalks.

This multi-species gene mashup was required to turn yeast into cellular factories that replicate two, now-separate processes: how nature produces opium in poppies, and then how pharmacologists use chemical processes to further refine opium derivatives into modern opioid drugs such as hydrocodone.

Subtitle: From Plants to Pills Today

Plant-derived opium has been used and abused for centuries, but a good place to begin the modern story is with the use of morphine during World War II.

Morphine is one of three principal pain killers derived from opium. As a class they are

Contact: Tom Abate
Stanford School of Engineering

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