Bioproduction of future painkillers such as morphine could become a reality. Researchers from the University of York and GlaxoSmithKline Australia made crucial genetic discoveries in the morphinan synthesis pathway, which will allow its production in microbial systems or in genetically selected plant breeds.

Opioid alkaloids have been used as painkillers since the dawn of time. The opium latex is found as a natural product in the opium poppy plant, Papaver somniferum, and contains the analgesic alkaloid morphine, which can be processed chemically to produce heroin and other opioids for medical purposes. Despite its long use, the process to obtain these desired molecules hasn’t been modernized much and it is still based in the cultivation and extraction from the plant, but this might be about to change.

Scientists from University of York and GlaxoSmithKline Australia have discovered what could be the key gene in the synthesis of the morphinan class of alkaloids. The gene, called STORR, evolved with two other enzymes, one oxidase and one reductase. Together, the three genes configure a network that introduced in, for example, genetically modified yeast could easily lead to the bioproduction of morphinans.

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Yet, there is still a long way to go. The steps to produce the desired alkaloids have been described, but the links need to be appropriately connected and the whole process still has to be scaled up.

However, the essential information is already known and the recent discoveries, together with the era of garage biology, could lead to a wave of hand-made opioids, the same way hobbyist brewers prepare homemade beer. GSK, on its side, will use this knowledge as a new tool for molecular plant breeding, in order to develop tailored poppies.

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