Scientists unlock gene secrets of opium poppy drug

Updated 08 July 2012

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.

 


Myanmar troops’ sexual violence against Rohingya shows ‘genocidal intent’ — UN report

Updated 53 min 47 sec ago

Myanmar troops’ sexual violence against Rohingya shows ‘genocidal intent’ — UN report

  • Hundreds of Rohingya women and girls were raped, with 80 percent of the rapes corroborated by the Mission being gang rapes, says report
  • A military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that began in August 2017 drove more than 730,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh

UNITED NATIONS: Sexual violence committed by Myanmar troops against Rohingya women and girls in 2017 was an indication of the military’s genocidal intent to destroy the mainly Muslim ethnic minority, United Nations investigators concluded in a report released on Thursday.
The panel of independent investigators, set up by the UN Human Rights Council in 2017, accused Myanmar’s government of failing to hold anyone accountable and said it was responsible “under the Genocide Convention for its failure to investigate and punish acts of genocide.”
A military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that began in August 2017 drove more than 730,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Myanmar denies widespread wrongdoing and says the military campaign across hundreds of villages in northern Rakhine was in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.
“Hundreds of Rohingya women and girls were raped, with 80 percent of the rapes corroborated by the Mission being gang rapes. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) was responsible for 82 percent of these gang rapes,” the report said.
The Myanmar government has refused entry to the UN investigators. The investigators traveled to refugee camps in Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, and met with aid groups, think-tanks, academics and intergovernmental organizations.
In an August 2018 report, the investigators laid out five indicators of genocidal intent by the Myanmar military: the use of derogatory language; specific comments by government officials, politicians, religious authorities and military commanders prior, during and after the violence; the existence of discriminatory plans and policies; evidence of an organized plan of destruction; and the extreme brutality of the campaign.
“The Mission now concludes on reasonable grounds that the sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls that began on 25 August 2017 was a sixth factor that indicated the Tatmadaw’s genocidal intent to destroy the Rohingya people,” the new report said.
The conclusion was based on “the widespread and systematic killing of women and girls, the systematic selection of women and girls of reproductive ages for rape, attacks on pregnant women and on babies, the mutilation and other injures to their reproductive organs, the physical branding of their bodies by bite marks on their cheeks, neck, breast and thigh.”
It said that two years later no military commanders had been held accountable for these and other crimes under international law and that the government “notoriously denies responsibility.”
“Myanmar’s top two military officials remain in their positions of power despite the Mission’s call for them to be investigated and, if appropriate, prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide,” the report said.
The investigators said they had collected new information about alleged perpetrators and added their names to a confidential list that will be shared with the UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet and another UN inquiry charged with collecting and preserving evidence for possible future trials.