RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Scientists say they've genetically engineered yeast to make powerful opioid drugs. They did this to make it easier and cheaper to manufacture new painkillers. But perhaps unsurprisingly, the advance is raising concern about home-brewed narcotics. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff has the story.
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: A wonderful smell wafts through Christina Smolke's lab at Stanford University, like in a bakery or a brewery.
CHRISTINA SMOLKE: I actually really like working with yeast because it has a very pleasant kind of bready, right, beer smell.
DOUCLEFF: But instead of making bread or beer, these microbes can make something else - something so powerful that the Drug Enforcement Administration requires Smolke to register the yeast and to lock them up.
SMOLKE: And you can see that there's a lock right here...
DOUCLEFF: Oh, I see.
SMOLKE: ...OK? So we're able to lock these.
DOUCLEFF: You see, for the past 10 years, Smolke has been trying to create yeast that can literally brew opioids.
SMOLKE: When we started this work, you know, there were people and experts in the field who said this was impossible, that this would never be done.
DOUCLEFF: Now she's officially done it. Smolke and her colleagues report in the journal Science they have created strains of yeast that can take sugar and convert it into hydrocodone. That's the ingredient in Vicodin. Another yeast strain makes a compound called thebaine, which can easily be turned into mini opioids like OxyContin and codeine. To do this, Smolke and her team took about 20 genes from a bunch of plants.
SMOLKE: Like the California poppy, like the Iranian poppy, gold thread, which is another plant.
DOUCLEFF: And even a few genes from rats. They inserted the genes into something like brewers' yeast and then coax the cells to synthesize the drugs. Smolke hopes the technology will eventually make morphine more available in poor countries, where there's a massive shortage of pain medications. But right now, the yeast can brew just tiny amounts of the drugs. Smolke says you'd have to drink a lot of it to get a single dose of hydrocodone.
SMOLKE: Oh, gosh, I think it's somewhere on the order of, you know, thousands of liters, basically, right? So it's nowhere near anything that is feasible for anyone.
DOUCLEFF: And it will likely take years to make it feasible. But the technology has already set off a heated debate about how to regulate the genetically modified organisms.
KENNETH OYE: We're just talking fermentation in brewing here. This is not a technology that's difficult to handle.
DOUCLEFF: That's Kenneth Oye, an engineering and political science professor at MIT. His concern is that these yeasts may one day be grown at home and used to make heroin from sugar. There could even be home brewing kits like we have for beer. And that, Oye says, could put more drugs on the street.
OYE: Unfortunately, one of the implications, in my judgment, would be that addicts would have easier access to something that threatens health in very serious ways. We are not talking marijuana here.
DOUCLEFF: Oye emphasizes that home brewing morphine isn't possible with Smolke's yeast. The strands wouldn't grow very well in someone's garage. But he says that's now closer than ever, and U.S. drug officials need to start planning now before scientists open up Pandora's box. He wants the DEA to track the microbes and even prohibit production of certain versions.
OYE: Once a robust, easy-to-grow, heroin-producing yeast strain is out there, its control would be, in my view, virtually impossible.
DOUCLEFF: Over at the DEA, special agent Eduardo Chavez shares some of Oye's concerns about using yeast for home brewing. But he's also worried about large drug cartels.
EDUARDO CHAVEZ: It's a concern that it'll fall into the wrong hands, that they'll find a way to increase production, to increase their profits all on the backs of people who are addicted to opiates.
DOUCLEFF: So the DEA is treating these yeast like they treat poppy plants. Researchers need special registration to handle the organisms and to distribute them. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.
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