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NCCIH Research Blog

NCCIH-funded Research on Opioids Highlighted in Science and Nature

December 21, 2015

John S. Williamson, Ph.D.

Branch Chief

Basic and Mechanistic Research in Complementary and Integrative Health Branch

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

Two of the world’s leading scientific journals, Science and Nature, have highlighted groundbreaking research by an NCCIH grantee as one of the most exciting scientific developments of the year.

Christina Smolke, Ph.D., of Stanford University was featured as one of Nature’s 10 People Who Mattered This Year for her team’s successful engineering of a yeast strain capable of making opioids. This achievement—the most complicated chemical synthesis ever engineered in yeast—was also highlighted as one of the runners-up for “Breakthrough of the Year” in Science.

Opioid drugs, which play crucial roles in pain management and palliative care, currently come from only one source—opium poppies. It can take a year to grow the poppy plants and produce medicine from them, and variations in crop yields can threaten the availability of opioids, particularly for patients in developing countries.

Several groups of scientists have been working on genetic engineering techniques to develop a faster and more reliable method of producing opioids, but until now, they had only succeeded in engineering cells to carry out portions of the biosynthetic pathway, not the whole process. This year, in a triumph of bioengineering, Dr. Smolke and her colleagues created a yeast strain that could carry out the entire 23-step pathway and transform sugar into the opioids thebaine and hydrocodone in only a few days.

I congratulate Dr. Smolke and her colleagues on their remarkable achievement. With further refinement, their innovative process may ensure a stable supply of a critically important category of drugs. Moreover, the lessons learned from their research may facilitate the development of bioengineering techniques to more efficiently produce other medicines that are crucial to public health. The staff in the NCCIH Division of Extramural Research, Basic and Mechanistic Branch, are proud to have supported Dr. Smolke's research and we look forward to more innovations from her lab in the future.

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