Morphine could soon be manufactured using ingredients found in home kits for brewing beer — following the discovery of new means to extract the drug from common raw materials. The drug has not yet been made from yeast found in beer-brewing kits, but some researchers are calling for regulations before a market for homemade morphine develops.

Morphine is not only dangerous in and of itself, the product can also be processed into heroin. In the hands of trained professional caregivers, morphine can be used to ease severe pain before and after surgery, but in the hands of others, it can prove deadly.

Health researchers have been working for years to alter the genetic code of yeast, in order to find low-cost methods of producing the drug. To date, those investigations only offered means of driving the final stages of production.

This new discovery has revealed that yeast can be used to covert sugar into (S)-reticuline, a chemical precursor to morphine. Researchers did not produce morphine using the new technique, but they did show that last step would be possible.

Heroin is usually made with morphine from the opium produced by poppy plants. If people are able to manufacture the drug without the plants, the black market could soon be flush with home-brewed morphine.

"Drug developers are testing novel analgesics that may be safer and less addictive than traditional opiates. Because yeast-based opiate-production pathways may be altered more easily than pathways in opium poppy, the work of these groups may prove useful in the production of these next-generation analgesics," said Kenneth Oye, a political science professor at MIT.

The new technique is still years away from producing morphine strong enough to treat pain, even under laboratory conditions — so it is still unlikely that backyard laboratories will turn up DIY versions of the drug in the near future.

Researchers nevertheless believe that regulations need to be drafted now. Significant problems could occur if new regulations are written while in the midst of a crisis, researchers warn.

"Opiate synthesis is the first example of synthetic biology facilitating the production of a controlled narcotic; other new production systems for potentially problematic compounds will almost certainly follow," Oye and his team of researchers wrote in a letter, published in the journal Nature, calling for oversight of genetically modified yeast.

The advance in creating morphine using yeast found in beer brewing kits was profiled in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

Photo: Mikey Lemoi | Flickr

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