Researchers have developed a way to grow the plant-based painkiller morphine from yeast cells. The method would enable scientists to make more morphine via the fast-growing yeast than is now possible in plants.
John Dueber, the lead scientist from the University of California Berkeley team that developed it, said it may even be possible to change the molecules in the drug to make it less addictive.
“We can start now making molecules that the plant doesn’t naturally make that might have even better properties for our applications like painkilling but not having addictiveness,” said Dueber.
A strain of yeast that is able to grow morphine doesn’t currently exist outside the lab, and the process is still inefficient, Dueber said.
However many experts are already raising concerns about illegal home brewing of the drug.
And questions remain about the effect it will have on painkiller abuse.
These drugs are overused as a treatment for non-cancer pain, said Dr. Michael Ashburn, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Pain Medicine Center.
“This class of drugs is not terribly effective for the treatment of non-cancer pain,” said Ashburn. “The average pain relief at best is 40 percent and [only] about one in three patients who receive opioids long term get long-term, significant clinically, meaningful benefit.”
Data indicate the best way to lower the rate of opioid addiction is through a prescription drug database. It allows doctors to know if patients are seeking drugs from multiple sources. Pennsylvania, one of the last states to monitor prescriptions of addictive painkillers, intends to launch a database later this year.