Calgary-based biotechnology company Epimeron Inc. has taken a major step in the battle against opioid epidemic with the announcement of the isolation of a novel gene from the opium poppy.
The breakthrough means that manufacturers can create commercial, non-plant based biosynthetic systems for active opioid agents and intermediates. The discovery also opens the door for the creation of new opioid molecules, some with new characteristics such as reduced addictiveness.
The work has been driven by Peter Facchini, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer of Epimeron. He has been working for the past two decades to develop a comprehensive understanding of the biochemistry, molecular and cell biology of pharmaceutical alkaloid metabolism in opium poppy.
"The discovery of the thebaine synthase gene is significant,” said Dr. John Wilson, Director, Physical and Life Sciences, Innovate Calgary. “This work has unlocked the path to transforming the commercial production of opiates and indicates the very real potential of developing non-addictive opioids. It is satisfying to witness how Dr. Faccini's comprehensive research has transitioned into creating a considerable impact."
Current regulatory requirements and commercial practices require the importation of crushed poppy straw from producer countries such as India and Turkey, but making opioids from sugar instead has the potential to solve many of the problems associated with manufacturing strong pain killers. Manufacturing directly from sugar will eliminate the need for opium poppy raw materials and thus decrease, or eliminate, diversion of legitimately made controlled substances into the illicit drug trade.
"We are delighted with this announcement which is an excellent example of how a nearly decade-old investment in large-scale genomic science can yield concrete benefits to Canada in terms of new technologies and economic growth for Canadian firms such as Epimeron," said Dr. Gijs van Rooijen, Chief Scientific Officer with not-for-profit funding agency Genome Alberta.
Microbial biosynthesis now makes it commercially viable for manufacturers to attempt to make certain modifications to the opioid molecule. It is expected that numerous candidate pharmaceuticals will arise for testing.
"While that next crucial breakthrough still lies ahead of us, the beneficial impact that such new medicines would have on society takes your breath away", stated Joseph Tucker, PhD, CEO of Epimeron.
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