By Kyle Francis
At the dawn of humanity, if we got sick or hurt, we relied upon Mother Nature and her plants to make us well again. Countless ages later, even with the invention of such drugs as Tylenol 3 and NyQuil, humanity still relies upon the earth to provide us with some of our most essential pharmaceuticals.
Two of the most commonly used painkillers today are codeine and morphine, and both come from the same plant: the opium poppy. Because codeine and morphine are so hard to artificially synthesize, pharmaceutical companies are forced to use the opium poppy to attain the drugs.
The more useful of the two painkillers is codeine, but about 95 per cent of the plants product is morphine. Rather than just settle for morphine, most companies choose to add another step to the process and convert the morphine into codeine.
This is where the University of Calgary’s Dr. “Feelgood” Facchini comes in. Facchini operates one of the two labs researching the metabolic engineering of the opium poppy in the world. Although the other lab is half way across the world in Germany, both labs have the endgame of creating an opium poppy that would produce only codeine.
If the research bears fruit, the synthesis of codeine would be much easier and efficient.
“As an academic, one of my goals is just to understand the metabolic processes,” said Facchini. “But [if the research is effective] it could not only benefit pharmaceutical companies, but also create a new Canadian industry and have some effect in developing countries.”
Facchini claims that if he and his team are able to engineer a codeine-only producing plant, Canada would be able to grow a large amount of opium poppy and even out-grow Australia–currently the largest producer of licit opium poppy in the world. Even more important than the creation of a new Canadian industry is the possible effects Facchini’s work could have on third world or developing nations.
“Afghanistan is the number one producer of illicit opium poppy in the world, right now,” stated Facchini, going on to explain how those who grow opium poppy illegally can synthesize heroin from the plant with relative ease. “Farmers there don’t grow this because they want to shoot someone up, they’re growing it because they need the money.”
If their research proves effective, Facchini claims that the growth of a codeine-only poppy crop would offer growers of illicit opium poppy an alternative to using the street-drug producing plant as a cash crop. Although the creation of a codeine-producing poppy would offer this alternative, Facchini states that science would only be the first step.
“Science is only part of the answer. Politics and economics are the others,” said Facchini. “Canada would have to have U.N. permission to start up an opium poppy crop, and implementing a crop such as that in Afghanistan would require a tremendous amount of international co-operation.”
The implications of this research are enormous, however Facchini is quick to indicate that he and his team aren’t particularly close to engineering their miracle shrub. Facchini explained that it could be as many as ten years before any tangible results are born from the project.
“Right now we’ve isolated the correct genes and are able to inefficiently transform the plant,” stated Facchini, maintaining optimism about his project. “Some more advances may happen in five years, some things may take ten years, and some may even take until the end of my career, some may even occur after my lifetime.”