University of Calgary researchers say they've pinpointed the elusive genes of the opium poppy, a discovery that could lead to cheaper and more widespread painkillers.
The genes allow the poppy to produce some of the world's most widely used pain relievers: codeine and morphine, said University of Calgary biological sciences professor Peter Facchini. Enzymes encoded by the two genes have eluded scientists for at least 50 years, he said.
"These are the two that are unique in opium poppy that allow it uniquely among plants to make codeine and morphine," said Mr. Facchini.
The scientist has devoted 18 years to researching the opium poppy, and made the genetic discovery along with Jillian Hagel, a post-doctoral scientist in Mr. Facchini's lab.
Their findings, which were announced yesterday, will be published in a paper appearing in the online edition of Nature Chemical Biology.
Finding the gene responsible for a trait in an organism, such as knowing the gene for breast cancer or cystic fibrosis, is an important first step toward solving problems or using new technology, Mr. Facchini said.
The majority of codeine that is available pharmaceutically is produced by taking morphine from the plant and chemically converting it back to the codeine, he said.
With the poppy plant genetic discovery, scientists could potentially create plants that will stop production at codeine, eliminating some of the extra work around producing the painkiller, said Mr. Facchini.
"Being able to create a poppy variety that is blocked at codeine can reduce production costs," he said.
Ms. Hagel used high-tech genomics techniques to sort through up to 23,000 different genes on a single slide before zeroing in on codeine O-dementhylase, which produces the plant enzyme that converts codeine into morphine.
Dr. Facchini, who has filed a patent on the discovery, said one of the next steps is to use the codeine gene to create pharmaceuticals in yeast or bacteria--bypassing the plant altogether.
That research is still in its early stages, he said.
Codeine is the most common opiate in the world. About 80% of codeine and morphine in the world is consumed by six countries, including Canada, Facchini said. However, Canada imports all of its opiates from countries such as France or Australia that cultivate the opium poppy.
Canadians alone spends more than $100 million every year on codeine-containing pharmaceutical products.
The genetic discovery could potentially lower the costs of the drug, Dr. Facchini said.