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Opium Poppy Yields Secrets to Codeine and Morphine Synthesis

Researchers at the University of Calgary in Canada have discovered the unique genes that allow the opium poppy to make codeine and morphine, thus opening doors to alternate methods of producing these effective painkillers either by manufacturing them in a lab or controlling their production in the plant. "The enzymes encoded by these two genes have eluded plant biochemists for a half-century," said co-author Dr. Peter Facchini, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, who has dedicated his career to studying the unique properties of the opium poppy. "In finding not only the enzymes but also the genes, we've made a major step forward," said Dr. Facchini. "It's equivalent to finding a gene involved in cancer or other genetic disorders. With this discovery, we can potentially create plants that will stop production at codeine. We are also working toward the synthesis of codeine and other opiate drugs more efficiently and economically in controlled bioprocessing facilities. Our discovery now makes it possible to use microorganisms to produce opiate drugs and other important pharmaceuticals." One of the next steps for the research team is using the codeine gene to produce pharmaceuticals in yeast or bacteria. The other co-author, Dr. Jillian Hagel, a post-doctoral scientist in Dr. Facchini's lab, was assigned the task of finding the key genes as part of her Ph.D. research. She succeeded using cutting-edge genomics techniques that helped her sort through up to 23,000 different genes and ultimately find a single gene called thebaine 6-O-demethylase (T6ODM) that codes for the plant enzyme that converts thebaine to codeinone, which is then converted to codeine by a known enzyme. She then went on to find the gene coding for the enzyme called codeine O-demethylase (CODM) that converts codeine to morphine. Codeine is by far the most widely used opiate in the world and one of the most commonly used painkillers. Codeine can be extracted directly from the plant, but most codeine is synthesized from the much more abundant morphine found in the opium poppy. Codeine is converted by an enzyme in the liver to morphine, which is the active analgesic and a naturally occurring compound in humans. Canadians spend more than $100 million every year on codeine-containing pharmaceutical products and are among the world's top consumers of the drug per capita. Despite this, Canada imports all of its opiates from other countries. The results of this opium poppy research were published online on March 14, 2010 in Nature Chemical Biology. [Press release] [Nature Chemical Biology abstract]