Modified yeast turn sugar into painkillers

By Laura Mize • Published: November 30th, 2015
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Stanford University researchers have developed a faster and simpler way of making narcotic painkillers such as Vicodin using a kitchen staple.

The scientists have successfully transformed common yeast … the kind used to make bread … to create the high-powered drugs, called opioids. They have modified the yeast genes to turn sugar into hydrocodone, for example, in less than a week.

Currently, such medications stem from poppies that are cultivated on licensed farms, then picked and processed. Bad weather and other poor growing conditions can lead to a low supply of the drugs, which are used to control severe pain and other medical problems.

Altering yeast to become drug-producing organisms took years of complex bioengineering. The Stanford team pulled D-N-A from three kinds of poppies, another type of flower, rats and a specific strain of bacteria that grows on poppy plants. The scientists then took the relevant parts of the genomes of all these organisms and inserted them into the yeast cells.

This genetic engineering allows the cells to take in sugar and convert it to a substance called thebaine (thuh-bayne), which is required to make opioids. Once thebaine is produced, the yeast also takes the next steps… those previously done in a factory… to change it to an opioid. To get opioid, the scientists only need to dump the modified yeast into vats of sugar and wait. They can make several different forms of the stuff, for each of the various types of opioid medications.

At present, making opioids from yeast is highly inefficient, requiring 4,400 gallons of the yeast to create just one batch of medications. So more work is needed. Also, as the method improves, safeguards will be required to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. But it is a step in the right direction towards ensuring a steady supply of this important medication for people in pain.