Today legal poppy farming is restricted to a few countries--including Australia, France, Hungary, India, Spain and Turkey--supervised by the International Narcotics Control Board, which seeks to prevent opiates like morphine, for instance, from being refined into illegal heroin.
The biggest market for legal opiates, and their opioid derivatives, is the United States, where pharmaceutical factories use chemical processes to create the refined products that are used as pain-killing pills. However poppies are not grown in significant quantities in the U.S., creating various international dependencies and vulnerabilities in the supply of these important medicines.
Subtitle: Turning Yeast Into a Pharmaceutical Factory
The thrust of Smolke's work for a decade has been to pack the entire production chain, from the fields of poppies, through all the subsequent steps of chemical refining, into yeast cells using the tools of bioengineering.
What Smolke's team has now done is to carefully reprogram the yeast genomethe master instruction set that tells every organism how to liveto behave like a poppy when it comes to making opiates.
The process involved more than simply adding new genes into yeast. Opioid molecules are complex three-dimensional objects. In nature they are made in specific regions inside the poppy. Since yeast cells do not have these complex structures and tissues, the Stanford team had to recreate the equivalent of poppy-like "chemical neighborhoods" inside their bioengineered yeast cells.
It takes about 17 separate chemical steps to make the opioid compounds used in pills. Some of these step
|Contact: Tom Abate|
Stanford School of Engineering