Hospital patients might someday fight
pain with opioids manufactured from
sugar-gobbling yeast similar to what
brewmasters and bakers use.
In August, Stanford synthetic biologist
Christina Smolke and her team announced
successfully using genetically modified baker’s
yeast, one strain to convert glucose into the
opioid hydrocodone and another strain to
create thebaine, an opioid precursor. Other
research groups completed the 15-step
conversion this year using several yeast
strains together, but Smolke’s team was the
first to use just a single strain to pull off the
conversion from start to finish.
To get the more than 20 enzymes needed
to complete the conversion from glucose
to painkillers, the team spliced genes from
plants, bacteria and even rats into yeast.
The new process could yield more effective,
less addictive and cheaper drugs, but also
raised concerns that hobbyists could someday
home-brew opioids. To test that theory,
Smolke’s team tried — and failed — to create
opioids with an over-the-counter brew kit.
“When you home-brew, you grow yeast
populations very differently than in a lab or
for commercial production,” she says.
For the new technique to be commercially
viable, the engineered yeast needs to perform
the conversion more efficiently and optimize
fermentation, Smolke says.
[This article originally appeared in print as "Sweet, Sweet Pain Relief."]