When papers in Nature Chemical Biology and PLOS ONE released this spring revealed an engineered form of yeast that could be used to make morphine as easily as home brewers turn out batches of beer in their basements, headlines sprouted with references to the notorious makeshift meth labs of Breaking Bad. It would be easy to characterize the research that led up to this breakthrough as an example of scientists opening yet another Pandora’s Box by putting a new technique in the hands of illegal drug manufacturers.
However, Concordia University biology Professor Vincent Martin, an author on both papers, points out that these implications were actually very well considered and anticipated. Martin explains that representatives of organizations with a vested interest in new methods of producing narcotics, including Health Canada, the RCMP, the Canada Border Services Agency and the FBI, have been kept abreast of the work as it proceeded. “We didn’t surprise anybody, either on the science side or the regulatory side,” Martin says, adding that early on he informed Tania Bubela, professor and associate dean of research at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health. Bubela subsequently co-authored a Nature commentary that credited this development to new genetic manipulation techniques that mark the cutting edge of contemporary molecular biology and represent a new reality regulatory authorities will have to confront.
Martin, for his part, insists that the potential benefits far outweigh any downside. Yeast-brewed opiates are only the latest result of ongoing efforts by Concordia’s Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology to improve the cost and availability of all kinds of drugs. This approach promises to revolutionize pharmaceutical manufacturing, taking multi-step methods that often begin with rare plant derivatives and turning the process into a much more efficient batch-growing technique. “You need to develop alternative systems to do exotic natural product chemistry,” Martin argues, having seen such progress for himself as the founder of a United States-based company that used fermentation to dramatically simplify the production of an expensive anti-malarial drug so that it could be delivered to developing countries at pennies a dose. “We’re at the inflection point where this technology is going to accelerate in the years to come.”