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Researchers close to brewing morphine from sugar

20 May 2015

Morphine which is a refined form of heroin can be made from sugar, according to recent research. The opioid can be fermented by exposing a genetically modified strain of yeast, to sugar.

Researchers from the University of California Berkeley and Concordia University in Canada devised an almost complete means to turn glucose to morphine, while the missing piece of the process came from scientists from the University of Calgary.

According to Nature the idea was to produce "cheaper, less addictive, safer and more-effective" painkillers.

Quite expectedly, there is a controversial aspect to it, with one side saying drug cartels might benefit more from it than science while other downplays the risks.

According to the report in The New York Times, getting an opiate out of sugar and brewer's yeast was much more difficult than making beer in the basement because fermenting altered yeasts required a unique know-how.

Also the process was still pretty far off and though research papers had been published, so far no one had actually synthesised the drug using the method.

According to John Dueber of the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley), society needed to think this through now before it became a reality.

Poppy plants had been farmed for centuries for opium, from which morphine, used often to relieve severe pain before and after surgeries, is derived.

Over the past decade, researchers had hacked the DNA of yeast to mimic poppies, to create cheaper and less addictive pain relievers. The yeast strains created could only perform the last steps of a long process that could lead to morphine and other narcotic drugs.

According to experts, it was still extremely difficult for people to make homemade morphine as the process was inefficient and even scientists were years away from lab-made morphine that was strong enough to treat pain.

(Read more: Discovery paves way for home-brewed drugs, prompts call for regulation)

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