Researchers at the University of Calgary say they have discovered the unique genes that allow the opium poppy to make compounds used to produce such drugs as codeine and morphine.
Isolating the genes means these painkillers could be made synthetically, in a lab, the researchers say in a report published Sunday in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.
The discovery could also open the door to controlling the production of compounds in the plant.
The poppy has, for thousands of years, been the source of opiate-based painkillers, but pinpointing just how the plant produces something that soothes our aches and pains has been a mystery — until now, says researcher Jillian Hagel.
"That day we realized that the needle in the haystack, so to speak, we'd found it, that was definitely something we'd been looking forward to," she says.
'Lot of quick breathing'
Fellow researcher Peter Facchini says the discovery, which has been eluding plant biochemists for a half-century, was very exciting.
"You have these very rare moments where you know you've made a big discovery ... and there's a lot of quick breathing and heart palpitation, but then you realize you're in for another year of hard work," he says.
"In the best-case scenario, our phone will be ringing off the hook on Monday, with drug companies wanting to know more about this discovery and wanting to know how they can be a part of this," says David Reese, project manager with University Technologies International, which helps U of C researchers commercialize their work.
Pharmaceutical companies may well cash in, but ultimately, it might be patients in poor countries who benefit the most.
Opiates are in short supply and that means many in the developing world can't afford the most powerful painkillers. This research could soon make them cheaper.