Scientists unlock gene secrets of opium poppy drug

Updated 08 July 2012
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Scientists unlock gene secrets of opium poppy drug

LONDON: Scientists have unraveled exactly how opium poppies produce a non-addictive compound that can both suppress coughs and kill tumor 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.
British-based GSK is a leading producer of opium-based ingredients, supplying around 20 percent 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 mechanized, 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 Center 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-tumor agent.
It functions in a similar way to Taxol, a cancer drug originally isolated from the bark of the Pacific yew tree and commercialized 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.

 


Abbas in Cairo to discuss Palestine situation

Updated 1 min 2 sec ago
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Abbas in Cairo to discuss Palestine situation

  • The media is full of rumors and test articles to gauge reactions from the public and officials, and no one knows what is true
CAIRO: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Cairo yesterday for an official visit to meet with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
The Ambassador of Palestine in Cairo and Permanent Representative to the League of Arab States Diab Al-Louh told Arab News that Abbas will also participate in the Extraordinary Session of the Council of the Arab League on Sunday to discuss the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The Arab League said in a statement that there were important developments regarding media reports about the so-called “deal of the century,” and it was these developments that made the Palestinian side call for an emergency meeting of foreign ministers.
Ambassador Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary general of the League of Arab States said in a press statement that the whole situation is not a reassuring one, despite what the media says. He said that the “deal of the century” is worrying and will not be positive, balanced or considerate of the Palestinian rights
“Our information and our understanding is that there is a desire by President ‘Abu Mazen’ to put the issue back on the table for the ministers, which the Palestinians considers extremely important,” he said.

‘Deal of the century’
“The session also serves as a platform for exposing the so-called deal of the century to the world and mobilizing the Arab position in the face of these developments.”
As for how the League of Arab States will deal with the “Deal of the Century,” Zaki said “I do not think anyone has accurate information about what will be put forward; everyone is playing the guessing game.
The media is full of rumors and test articles to gauge reactions from the public and officials, and no one knows what is true.”
Tarek Said, an expert on the Palestinian issue, told Arab News that the emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers will have a great impact on what is raised about the deal of the century, especially in light of serious international variables related to the Palestinian issue.
While the US promotes its plan for peace in the Middle East or the so called “deal of the century,” the Arabs will be supported by the calls from senior European officials to refrain from supporting the plan if it does not respect the principle of a two-state solution between the Palestinians and Israelis.”