This week scientists at Stanford University in the US announced they had successfully taken the biochemical pathway that produces opium in Papaver somniferum poppies and inserted it into a strain of the yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
The research – in Nature Chemical Biology this week – brings poppy-free opium a step closer according to author Christina D Smolke, who is working to connect the pathway to another that converts opium into medically useful opiates.
“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.”
She added that: "This will allow us to create a reliable supply of these essential medicines in a way that doesn't depend on years leading up to good or bad crop yields.”
While some opium used in the production of painkillers is derived from poppies grown in India or from concentrated poppy straw (CPS) produced in Turkey, France and Spain, the vast majority comes from poppies cultivated in Tasmania.
This reliance on a single source is a problem according to firms that grow poppies on the Australian island like TPI Enterprises, Tasmanian Alkaloids and UK drugmaker GSK, which say rising demand for painkillers coupled with frequent droughts are stretching supplies.
Earlier this year all three producers – along with US drugmaker J&J – asked the Australian Government for licenses to grow opium poppies commercially on the mainland after running small scale trials.
According to reports in the Australian media TPI has just been granted a license, although the Victoria State Government did not respond to a request for confirmation.
GSK has not been granted a license according to a spokesman, who told in-Pharmatechnologist.com “we have commenced our trials for the 2014 season in line with our long-term plans.
“We continue to plan for commercialisation consistent with the scientific information that we derive from the trials” he continued, adding that “this includes evaluating regions and growers in readiness for potential commercialisation.”
He also said that GSK is aware of Dr Smolke’s research, explaining that the firm “actively monitors all scientific work around the industry in particular work around gene function in which we have an ongoing research program in collaboration with the University of York."
The collaboration, which is focused on improving opium poppy yields, “has been shown to provide significant productivity improvements to industrial scale poppy production and reinforces the current cost effectiveness of agriculture based production of opiate compounds” according to the spokesman.