A team of researchers from the University of York in the United Kingdom , along with experts from the behemoth pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline have recently made an important discovery related to certain species of poppies.
The study they published in the journal Science revealed that there is a morphine gene in poppies that produce morphinans.
Morphine is nowadays sold under many names and is an opiate pain medicine which helps relieve the pain of patients suffering from various conditions because it acts directly on the central nervous system. It can be administered in many ways, both orally or through injections and the effect varies from one case to another.
However, the opiate can become quite dangerous because it is addictive and there is high potential for abuse. An overdose of morphine can lead to asphyxia and eventually death if the person does not receive immediate medical care.
The existence of poppies that contain the morphine gene called STORR can be traced millions of years ago. At the time, two genes are believed to have mingled. These encoded oxidase and reducatse enzymes.
The researchers believe STORR has a crucial role in terms of morphine production and this is why their discovery can help them grow as many poppies as possible to produce the much needed substance for so many patients worldwide.
“Opium poppy is one of the most important medicinal plants. The formation of the fusion protein was probably a key evolutionary event in its ability to synthesise pharmaceutically important morphinan alkaloids,” said Dr. Thilo Winzer, who is the lead study author.
Thus, such poppies could be grown for pharmaceutical use, making it easier and cheaper to produce the opiate. Nevertheless, there is also the risk of unwanted illegal production of heroin that could become more available for drug users. This could increase the number of drug abusers all over the world.
Heroin, also known as diamorphine is an extremely powerful drug that is also derived from morphine molecules in which two acetyl groups have been added. With this discovery out in the open, producers of heroin would be able to make the drug with diminished costs and without having to import poppy opiates.
The researchers were able to come to the conclusion that a morphine gene resides in poppies when they realized that some plants were unable to produce neither morphine nor codeine and they displayed mutations of the STORR gene.
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