Stanford Researchers Just Found a Way to Make Painkillers out of Yeast

August 14th 2015

Kyle Jaeger

For countries without access to opioid-based painkillers such as hydrocodone, treating patients suffering from severe pain can be a problem. Traditionally, drug manufacturers have relied on poppies, a flowering plant, to chemically synthesize opioids—a process that can take up to one year—but new research promises to revolutionize the way we develop prescription medication, using bioengineered baker's yeast instead of poppies to produce painkillers.

Researchers at Stanford University engineered yeast with 23 genes from six organisms, including rats, soil bacterium, and several variations of poppy, and managed to alter the biochemical function of the fungus so that it converted sugar into opiates in only three to five days. Published in the journal Science, the study has both excited health professionals and worried some who feel that painkillers cause more public health problems than they solve.

On the one hand, broader access to painkillers stands to benefit patients in regions of the world where the drug is inadequately supplied; on the other hand, increased and simplified production of the highly addictive drug poses concerns as pain medication abuse and overdose rates continue to rise in the U.S. The researchers say that, once tweaked, the process they used to develop synthetic opiates could also be used to create less addictive forms of the drug.

Christina Smolke, the lead author of the study, explains that the chemical compounds that plants such as poppies produce are not necessarily meant to serve as medications for humans. "It's not necessarily an optimal medicine," she told ATTN:.

"If we stick to poppies, then we're limited to what the poppies makes," Smolke added, "whereas with a yeast-based platform, you can actually put together genes from different organisms—you can begin to build something and modify these compounds in very specific ways that would have a real possibility of creating improved medicine."

For now, the process would require 4,400 gallons of bioengineered yeast to produce one dose of the medication, but as scientists continue to fine-tune the engineering methods, this research could have dramatic implications for the multibillion-dollar painkiller manufacturing industry. If the efficiency of Stanford's bioengineering system is improved, that could also open up opportunities to expand its commercial use beyond opioid-based drug development. For example, the process could be used to produce other essential medicines for the treatment of cancer and chronic illness.

"Stanford University holds the patents on the technology described by the researchers, who have formed a company to pursue the commercial applications," Reuters reported.

Though the researchers behind this study have said that they recognize that expedited opiate production "could generate concern about worsening the growing abuse of these painkillers," they contend that painkillers are considered essential medicines by the World Health Organization, noting that most of the world does not have adequate supplies of these medicines.

"We want there to be an open deliberative process to bring researchers and policymakers together," Smolke told Stanford News. "We need options to help ensure that the bio-based production of medicinal compounds is developed in the most responsible way."