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Stanford team turns yeast into painkillers


Stashed in: Women in Tech, Biotech!, Stanford, Science!, Extraordinary People, Innovation, Founders, Medicine, Interesting Tidbits, Awesome, XX, Medical Breakthroughs, Science Too, Better Living Through Chemistry, Women, Breaking Bad, CRISPR, STEM, Yeah science!, Cognitive Bias, Self Test, Opioids

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It was only a matter of time, but hydrocodone -- the good part of America's favorite pill, Vicodin -- can now be made by bioengineered baker's yeast instead of opium poppies. Totally 110% GMO, by the way -- will be interesting to see if suburban housewives scream about GMO products when it's the painkillers they get after childbirth or a dental procedure. For the moment the technology is expensive and difficult enough to present a barrier to non-scientists... but you know the next step is for the Walter White of yeast tinkering to start cooking up the hydrocodone...

True that, Joyce. Wow this process they invented is pretty brilliant:

The scientists, led by chemical engineer Christina Smolke, conducted perhaps the most formidable feat of synthetic biology yet: inserting 23 genes from three very different creatures -- a rat, a plant and a bacterium -- into a single yeast cell.

This altered yeast then followed its new genetic operating instructions as reliably as a machine, turning simple sugar into the powerful painkiller hydrocodone, the basis of morphine and other valuable pain relievers.

The technique dupes the yeast cell into thinking it is a colorful opium poppy.

"It transforms the process," said Smolke, an associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford. She has created a Palo Alto company called Antheia to commercialize the technology. Patents are held by Stanford.

"It makes something that now takes over a year in just a few days," she said. "It also makes it in an enclosed, carefully controlled reactor, so it's not vulnerable to weather or pests or disease."

This lab-based approach -- readily standardized and reproducible -- could be modified to improve painkillers, perhaps reducing their side effects or risk of addiction, she said. 

It could also be used to make other medications, she said.

I wonder if she has key-person insurance for her startup? And if it requires her to avoid vacations in Mexico...

Actually, probably.

Joking aside, what strikes me from talking with you about this is that the process itself is currently manual, but if they can improve and automate it -- perhaps using software like CRISPR -- they will enable a whole new series of custom designer drugs to be easily fabricated.

For better and for worse. This technology could help ease peoples' pain... or create more addicts.

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