Investment highlights.

  Yeast can be used not only to make flour and steam buns, but also to make painkillers. A study published in Science recently describes a method of producing a class of painkillers from genetically modified yeast. According to the researchers, the method not only shortens the production cycle of the drug from a year to a few days, but also reduces the cost to one-tenth of the traditional method, and in the future, when the technology is mature, it is expected to significantly reduce the retail price of the relevant drugs.

  The production of painkillers often involves a lengthy process: poppies are first grown by licensed farmers and then sent to pharmaceutical companies when they are ripe to extract the opioid molecules and combine them with other ingredients to make the drug. This process often takes around a year. Because the plant is susceptible to weather, pests and other factors, traditional production methods often have many uncontrollable factors.

  Christina Smucker, a bioengineer at Stanford University in the USA, and her research team believe that genetically engineered yeast may replace this process. In the new study, they have reprogrammed the genetic mechanism of baker's yeast to allow the yeast cells to convert sugar into a close relative of one, hydrocodone. This substance has a variety of activities with similar properties to codeine (also known as methyl) and can be used for pain relief and analgesia. In addition, this method can be used to make drugs for cancer, infectious diseases, high blood pressure and arthritis. The new method also gives manufacturers more flexibility to make drugs from different compounds.

  The researchers believe that with further research, the cost of producing painkillers from this genetically modified yeast could be reduced to a tenth of the cost of traditional methods.

  This would be an important thing to do, as the people who take these drugs make up a large percentage of the global population. The WHO estimates that more than five billion people worldwide have no or little access to the painkillers they need. The researchers hope that the new method will significantly reduce the price of these drugs, allowing more patients to get the medication they need at a lower price.

  But Smucker also admits that the new technique is not perfect for now: currently it takes 20,000 litres of engineered yeast to produce a single dose of painkiller. As a next step, the researchers need to increase the efficiency of each cell's use of the enzyme, optimise the amount of drug produced by the yeast and improve the efficiency of the engineered yeast. Smucker believes that a well-funded company can expect to crack these challenges within five to six years.

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