University of Calgary plant biochemist Peter Facchini with research opium poppies. (Credit: Ken Bendiktsen, University of Calgary)
Peter Faacchini has dedicated his career to studying the unique properties of the opium poppy. Now he and his research team at the University of Calgary have discovered the unique genes that allow the opium poppy to make codeine and morphine, thus opening doors to alternate methods of producing these effective painkillers either by manufacturing them in a lab or controlling the production of these compounds in the plant.
"The enzymes encoded by these two genes have eluded plant biochemists for a half-century. In finding not only the enzymes but also the genes, we've made a major step forward. It's equivalent in finding a gene involved in cancer or other genetic disorders." - Peter Facchini.
Fuller report at Science Daily [15 March 2010]
Researchers findings published in Nature Chemical Biology.
Discovery raises possibility of manufacturing painkillers more cheaply using vats of microbes rather than fields of flowers.
More than 2,500 hectares of British fields have been turned into opium poppy farms to meet NHS demands for morphine, a potent painkiller that was first isolated in 1806.
Last year, Tasmania's attorney-general, Lara Giddings, raised concerns over the impact of opium poppy farms on wildlife. Farmers in the country, the world's largest producer of legal opium, reported that wallabies had been hopping around in circles after eating the plants.
In 2008, the European Union's drug agency warned that Britain faced a heroin crisis following a record harvest of poppies in Afghanistan, which accounts for 90% of the world's illicit opium. By blocking one of the genes, scientists said they could create a strain of poppies that produce codeine but do not go on to convert this into morphine, the source of heroin.
Source: Ian Sample (The Guardian 15 March 2010)
Gene tinkering could produce medicine-only opium poppies - March 15, 2010
Canadian researchers have discovered the genes responsible for crucial steps in the manufacture of morphine by poppies, raising the possibility of plants that produce medically-useful codine but cannot be used for heroin.
Jillian Hagel and Peter Facchini, of the University of Calgary, report in Nature Chemical Biology that they have identified the enzymes responsible for two of the three chemical steps that convert the amino acid tyrosine to morphine. They also identified the genes that produce these enzymes.
Calgary researchers unlock gene secrets of opium poppy
Codeine is one of the most commonly used painkillers in the world. In Canada consumers spend more than $100 million a year on codeine-containing pharmaceutical products.
Canadians are among the world's top per capita consumers of the drug, but must have it imported from countries like France and Australia, said Facchini.
While codeine is currently extracted directly from the plant, most codeine is synthesized from the much more abundant morphine found in the opium poppy.
In humans, codeine is converted by an enzyme in the liver to morphine.
Source: Edmonton CTV.ca
Lastly, there’s the reality that about 10 times as much opium is made for the illegal heroin trade as for the legitimate manufacture of morphine and codeine [The Independent]. Theoretically, scientists could use engineered viruses to shut down the opiate-producing genes in the poppies of say, Afghanistan, to crush the illegal drug trade. But beyond the sheer difficulty of executing such a thing, the political consequences of such hubris could be unpredictable, Charles S. Helling of the State Department’s narcotics division tells Science News.
Source: Discover March 15th