But a Canadian researcher says he has come up with a way to turn any type of sugar into high-powered opiates.
Vincent Martin is a microbiologist at Concordia University in Quebec and the co-author of the new study published this week in the prestigious journal Nature.
He and his U.S.-based colleagues have created a new strain of yeast by adding the genetic code from other organisms, and the result is a recipe that can convert simple sugars into opiates such as morphine, codeine and heroin as well as other pharmaceuticals.
"We're really just at the beginning to see how far we can take this in terms of creating new drugs," Martin told CBC news. He said in addition to opiates, other types of painkillers, cancer drugs and antibiotics could also potentially be created with the new process.
Possible criminal use of process
While it opens up avenues for new pharmaceuticals, it also creates the possibility that basement laboratories could make heroin just as easily as criminals currently manufacture methamphetamine, commonly known as crystal meth.
Knowing this could be controversial and potentially harmful, Martin says he and fellow researchers stopped short of completing the process, even though they're confident it would work.
"We've managed to get all the pieces of the puzzle figured out and identified. What we've yet to do is put the entire puzzle together."
Tania Bubela is associate dean for research in the school of public health at the University of Alberta. She wrote a commentary on the research, exploring possible criminal use.
"There's a red flag here that's been raised, and we want to make sure this technology advances in a responsible manner for the benefit of patients that are in pain," Bubela told CBC news.
The fear is that if the yeast got out of the lab and into the hands of criminals it could lead to heroin being produced illegally basically anywhere.
"You could envisage a system that's a bit more like methamphetamine production, than the current trafficking of heroin or cocaine."
Seeking guidance from regulators
To help offset the potential problems, the scientists are seeking guidance from regulators, including Health Canada and various policing and border security agencies in Canada and the United States.
"We're not trying to set off any panic buttons, we're trying to have a rational discussion with the regulators," said Bubela.
Bubela said a range of safety measures have already been discussed, such as:- Ensuring the genetically engineered yeast is only used in high security laboratories.
- Engineering the yeast to be dependant on a secret nutrient so it would not survive even if it's stolen. This is sometimes referred to as having a 'kill switch' in the organism.
- Screening anyone working with the yeast to ensure they're not a security risk.
- Increasing criminal sanctions if anyone uses it inappropriately.
After being asked about their involvement or any concerns about the project, Health Canada said it is "aware of research to attempt to produce in vitro synthetic opioids on a small scale.
"Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the production of opioids, such as morphine, is strictly regulated, whether it is in synthetic or natural form. Unauthorized production is illegal under the CDSA."