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Great scientific breakthroughs of 2015: Concordia’s synthetic painkiller research cracks the top 10

The Montreal-Berkeley project appears alongside revelations like NASA’s discovery of water on Mars

According to CTV News, a research collaboration led by Concordia professor Vincent Martin and John Duebert from the University of California, Berkeley, ranks among the top 10 major scientific breakthroughs of 2015.

The Concordia-Berkeley team was successfully able to prove that yeast can be engineered to convert sugar into alkaloids — allowing for the synthetic production of drugs including opiates, antibiotics and anti-cancer therapeutics.

“Most painkillers are currently produced by harvesting rare chemicals from government-regulated plants such as the poppy, but this breakthrough could make it easier to produce the drugs on the cheap,” wrote CTV reporter Josh Elliott.

Montreal newspaper Le Devoir also included Martin and Duebert's research in its list of major scientific discoveries from last year.

The findings, published last May in Nature Chemical Biology, outline how the researchers synthesized reticuline, a compound from which most alkaloids derive.

“Getting to reticuline is critical for the process to be economically viable because from there, most of the molecular steps that produce codeine and morphine have been identified in yeast,” said Martin, a professor of microbial genomics and engineering at Concordia’s Department of Biology.

In a related study published in PLoS ONE last April, Martin and his group also engineered yeast for the production of thebaine, a precursor of codeine, morphine and oxycodone, from reticuline.

Martin and Dueber are conscious of the serious implications of their discovery — which allows for the potential of “home-brewing” opioids — and are calling for regulators and law enforcement officials to pay close attention.

Read more about Vincent Martin and John Dueber’s research in “Beyond the poppy: a new method of opium production.”


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