Enabling Alkaloid production in engineered poppy cells

opium poppy plant

Author: Janos Bindics

Opiate alkaloids such as morphine and codeine are important pharmaceutical ingredients used to treat severe pain. Morphine is even classified as an essential medicine by the World Health Organization (WHO). Opiate-based medications are crucial to provide normal life for patients who need long-term pain management due to living with terminal cancer, sickle cell disease, COPD- related dyspnea, (etc.). Unfortunately, morphine is practically unavailable in low- and middle-income countries leaving patients in suffering [1].

One of the reasons for this is the current plant-based production of opiate alkaloids, based solely on opium poppy plant (Papaver somniferum). As an agricultural technology, industrial poppy cultivation is inherently affected by pests, diseases, unfavorable weather, drought due to climate change, and requires large areas of land and excessive resources. Therefore, farming-independent technological solutions have been the focus of chemical and biotechnological research. The production of opiate alkaloids has been demonstrated through chemical synthesis and the use of genetically modified microbes. Although these approaches were promising, they failed to revolutionize the current technology of plant-based opiate production due to the high specific costs.

The fact that the transfer of the morphine biosynthetic pathway into microbial hosts failed caused us to reconsider the choice of host. We believe that poppy cells are the ideal choice as they naturally contain all the genetic information required for morphine synthesis. Therefore, we set out to elucidate the regulation of alkaloid production in poppy plants and use the information obtained to enable the production of morphine and other relevant opiates in cultured, genetically engineered poppy cells.


1 – The Lancet Commission report. Lancet 391, 1391–1454 (2018).

Picture credits: Pixabay

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