Can This Silicon Valley Startup Bioengineer A Less Addictive Opioid?

Back in 2015, a 40-year-old synthetic biologist named Christina Smolke, along with a small team of researchers

at Stanford, made a huge discovery. They proved that a genetically engineered yeast could produce opioid molecules, the core ingredients of some of the world’s most widely prescribed pain medicines.

Using yeast to produce things is as old as beer and bread, but with the complete mapping of, and increasing understanding of, the entire yeast genome–the totality of its DNA–the microbes are being used to produce more complex and valuable things, like fuels and medicines. Twenty percent of bioengineered drugs are now produced with microbials, including a great many produced with organisms other than yeast. But Smolke’s mission to make opioids out of yeast is on another level of complexity, requiring many successful chemical reactions as the yeast metabolizes sugar.

Smolke has spent the last 15 years of her life editing the genetic language written on the chromosomes of yeast–silencing some genes, amplifying the effects of others and, most of all, adding completely new genetic code to direct specific cellular activity. In the end, the yeast perform a completely new metabolic process–a long sequence of chemical chain reactions that starts by feeding the yeast some sugar and ends with the creation of complex opioid molecules.

The implications of Smolke’s discovery were huge. Suddenly it seemed possible to mass-produce opioids in a whole new way–in bioreactors, with yeast. It raised the possibility of disrupting a drug industry that still relies mainly on materials from the poppy plant to make vital pain medicines.

The whole thing was promising enough to propel Smolke and her team out of their safe confines at Stanford and into a new life as a startup company–Antheia, Inc. But the young company has a major challenge on its shoulders. It must prove that it can mass-produce opioid molecules faster, cheaper, and more reliably using yeast than the big drug companies can using the poppy.

photo- Professor Christina Smolke [Photo: Rod Searcey