New Narcotics Spell Uncertain Future for Opiate Addiction
Today’s medical breakthrough, tomorrow’s drug epidemic — so the history of addiction has often gone. The pattern means developments in biochemical engineering are fraught with both promise and peril.
Scientists now are closing in on a new way to engineer yeast-derived narcotics, a process that could become as easy to undertake and impossible to regulate as home-brewed beer. That potential for losing control raises questions about the development’s implications for opiate and heroin addiction rates in this country. A new form of genetically modified baker’s yeast, called the S. cerevisiae strain, is in development, and it might provide the potential to create cheaper forms of morphine and other painkilling narcotics within two to three years, according to the scientist heading the work.
“When we first started this work a little over a year ago, we thought we were probably about a decade away from a yeast strain that would make enough morphine to be an active amount in the body,” John Dueber, PhD, an assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, says in a May 2015 HealthDay article. “We have realized these pieces are all moving quicker than we would have originally thought.”
The various biochemical “pieces” are now there, but they’re like Lego bricks in a kit, still requiring assembly into an integrated pathway. At the end, the researchers expect to find a cheaper, easier and potentially less addictive alternative to poppy plant-derived painkillers.
Getting to this point is no small thing: Researchers took time to identify and recreate, and these genetically sequenced and engineered enzymes will soon be able to be mixed, matched and mutated to create entirely new molecules. In other words, the basic biochemical machinery is in place to herald great opportunities, both for the medical community and — in the absence of smart licensing laws and regulations — for illicit drug manufacturers, also.
Possible Advantages and Risks of Yeast-Derived Narcotics
The potential benefits to medical science should not be understated, says Kenneth Oye, PhD, an associate professor of political science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Dr. Oye, whose expertise in biotechnology policy is helping to steer a conversation around responsible policies and regulations regarding the use and manufacture of yeast-derived opiates, says the prospect of developing analgesics that do not have quite the same severity of side effects — such as less severe respiratory risks or less elevated highs, the quality that makes opiates so addictive — is one significant benefit.
“The value of the work is, if you’re talking about a synthesis pathway in yeast and not in poppy, it’s a lot easier to be modifying the pathway in yeast than a pathway in poppy,” Oye says. “The justification is that (the researchers) are doing the work that’s required to be able to make the safer and better stuff as that stuff develops.”
But the risk of abuse and a new wave of opiate addictions pose a real threat, one that Oye and others — including Chappell Lawson, PhD, a fellow social scientist at MIT and former executive director of policy and planning at U.S. Customs and Border Protection — are seeking to address proactively. Dr. Lawson notes that if commercial, industrial-scale production of yeast-based opiates is still a long way off, smaller-scale production of illicit drugs from engineered yeast strains and readily available ingredients is a more immediate danger.
“If a yeast strain is developed that can cheaply produce black-market drugs from widely available ingredients, and if this yeast strain is easy to cultivate, and if it escapes the lab, access to and use of opiates will certainly increase — probably by quite a bit,” Dr. Lawson says, acknowledging the outcome would be bad. “The best analogies I can think of are the recent crystal meth epidemic and the epidemic of laudanum use more than a century ago.”
Enacting Safeguards Now
The goal of current policymaking conversations is to develop safeguards to prevent such epidemics. Lawson cites safeguards in place to prevent the release of dangerous pathogens as a helpful model for this goal. For example, background checks on lab employees and tight security at labs working with yeast strains might prevent abuse of the technology. Other regulatory measures Lawson suggested considering include “placing any organisms that produce controlled substances from uncontrolled substances on the controlled substances list (just as opium poppy plants are)” and “engineering opiate-producing yeast strains so that they are hard to cultivate outside the lab.”
Would such measures prevent yeast-derived narcotics from getting into the wrong hands? “If adopted, yes,” Lawson says, at least when “we are discussing yeasts that are being developed in laboratories.”
Lawson goes on:
Now, if legal yeast-based production of opiates were ever to reach industrial scale and to supplant conventional agriculture-based production, additional safeguards would be needed. My understanding is that there is very little, if any, leakage from the current production regime, so I believe it would be possible to prevent pilfering or theft of the yeast from large-scale facilities as well. But such facilities would have to be very carefully controlled — even more tightly than current production is because once a strain used in industrial production escaped, it might be very hard to put the genie back in the bottle.
One escaped “genie” could have global repercussions for the illicit sale and use of opiates such as heroin. Just ask Dr. Thomas Binz, who, as a member of the International Expert Group of Biosafety and Bioengineering Regulation, has been collaborating with Oye’s team from his post in Switzerland’s Federal Office of Public Health. Dr. Binz shares his colleagues’ concerns that the modified S. cerevisiae strain could be stolen or replicated based on published results, and in turn distributed, ramping up the illicit production of narcotics worldwide. He also points to existing regulatory gaps that will need to be closed. One of these is that “very few countries at this time have implemented biosecurity regimes even for dangerous infectious agents,” and “extending security requirements to genetically modified organisms would even be a further step and therefore require a very careful and thorough risk analysis.” Moreover, regulations regarding DNA screening of a yeast-derived pathway to narcotics will need to be developed, he says.
Oye agrees that preventing unauthorized access to the strain is crucial. Regarding efforts to close regulatory gaps and introduce safeguards around yeast-derived narcotics, he says, “It’s important to be discussing these now.”
Meanwhile, substance abuse of this type of drug is increasing. The 2014 World Drug Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime puts opiates and opioids at the top of the list of problem drugs, because they “cause the most burden of disease and drug-related deaths worldwide.” The report notes that global heroin production is again on the rise. And in the United States, the number of heroin-related deaths has quadrupled since the year 2000, according to the latest report by the National Center for Health Statistics.
By Kristina Robb-Dover
Follow Kristina on Twitter at @saintplussinner