Scientists Genetically Modify E. Coli to Create Opioids

Scientists Genetically Modify E. Coli to Create Opioids

Stomach this: scientists are genetically engineering bacteria which cause food-poisoning to create new opioid painkillers.

It’s OK. I’ll give you time to re-read that sentence.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 5.5 billion people worldwide have little or no access to opioid drugs due to limited supply and high costs. Sure, many people could benefit from powerful painkillers – after surgery, for example, and to take the edge off of severe pain caused by cancer – but here in America, we’ve been giving out opioids like M&Ms for every little ache and pain.

There are signs that things are beginning to change, but we’re still swimming in pills.

Read: Prescription Drugs Now the Leading Cause of Death by Overdose

And as the number of opioid overdose deaths in the United States continues to rise, these scientists are hard at work, mass-producing more painkillers, and GMO ones, at that.

Every rose has its thorn.

Japanese bioengineers have “tweaked” E. coli genes to produce thebaine, a morphine precursor that can be modified to make painkillers. Input “thebaine” in Google and you’ll quickly find that thebaine itself is widely used and abused.

The GMO E. coli produces 300 times more thebaine and, so the scientists claim, it does so with minimal risk of unregulated use than a newly developed method involving yeast.

Study author Fumihiko Sato, of Kyoto University, explained:

“Morphine has a complex molecular structure; because of this, the production of morphine and similar painkillers is expensive and time-consuming. But with our E. coli, we were able to yield 2.1 milligrams of thebaine in a matter of days from roughly 20 grams of sugar, as opposed to 0.0064 mg with yeast.” [1]

Normally, morphine (an opiate, not an opioid) is extracted from opium poppy sap, and the process can take up to a year. Morphine can then be converted into codeine, hydrocodone, even heroin.

As I mentioned earlier, other synthetic biologists have recently engineered the yeast genome so that it produces opiate alkaloids from sugar. The problem with that method, according to Sato, is that the GM yeast cells can convert sugar into hydrocodone in just 3-5 days, and that could be a nightmare if it fell into the wrong hands.

Read: Scientists Develop “GMO Painkillers” Using Rat DNA, Yeast

Sato explained that his version of GMO opioids are supposedly safer that way:

“Four strains of genetically modified E. coli are necessary to turn sugar into thebaine. E coli are more difficult to manage and require expertise in handling. This should serve as a deterrent to unregulated production.” [2]

He continued:

“By adding another two genes, our E. coli were able to produce hydrocodone, which would certainly boost the practicality of this technique. With a few more improvements to the technique and clearance of pharmaceutical regulations, manufacturing morphine-like painkillers from microbes could soon be a reality.” [3]

The process doesn’t allow hydrocodone to be mass-produced in a handful of days, but, still, it allows opioids to be mass-produced.

And did I mention, it’s genetically modified?


[1] News Medical


[3] Pain News Network