Gene secrets of opium poppy unlocked

2012-06-01 07:16
Scientists have unlocked the gene secrets of poppy bulbs that may fight cancer. (AP)

Scientists have unlocked the gene secrets of poppy bulbs that may fight cancer. (AP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

London - Scientists have unravelled exactly how opium poppies produce a non-addictive compound that can both suppress coughs and kill tumour cells, paving the way for improved production of the medicine.

Opium poppies, the source of illicit heroin, are also important for producing medical painkillers such as morphine and codeine, along with noscapine, which has been used for decades as a cough suppressant.

More recently, researchers have found noscapine is also a potent anti-cancer agent, prompting clinical tests into its role in fighting blood cancer.

The discovery that a cluster of 10 genes is responsible for the synthesis of noscapine inside the poppies means plant breeders can now develop high-yielding varieties. It may also help scientists in future produce the drug in factories.

The findings by researchers at the University of York and GlaxoSmithKline were published on Thursday in the journal Science.

Pharmaceutical production

British-based GSK is a leading producer of opium-based ingredients, supplying around 20% of the world's medicinal opiate needs from poppies grown by farmers in Tasmania.

The fact that all the genes associated with noscapine are clustered together makes life much easier for plant breeders who can use the information to develop high-yielding commercial noscapine poppies.

In contrast to illegal opium production in countries like Afghanistan, where harvesting is done by hand by lancing poppy heads, commercial pharmaceutical production is highly mechanised, with farmers using modern combine harvesters.

That makes commercial poppy cultivation a cost-effective process, even though most medicines today are produced by chemical synthesis or biotechnology.

"The poppy plant is very efficient at producing these compounds," said Ian Graham, director of the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products at York.

Working back from a strain of poppies producing high levels of noscapine, Graham and colleagues followed the trail of genes linked to the chemical to home in on the cluster of 10 specific genes central to production of the compound.

The cluster of genes, all of which are inherited together, is the most complex ever found in plants.

Noscapine was first discovered in the early 19th century and has been used to suppress coughs since the 1950s, but interest in the compound has grown since 1998 when scientists demonstrated that it acts as a potent anti-tumour agent.

It functions in a similar way to Taxol, a cancer drug originally isolated from the bark of the Pacific yew tree and commercialised by Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Cougar Biotechnology, now part of Johnson & Johnson, has been studying noscapine as a treatment for multiple myeloma, a type of cancer affecting the plasma cells in bone marrow.
Read more on:    cancer  |  health  |  research

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

linking and moving

2015-04-22 07:36 publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.