University of Calgary researchers unlock gene secrets of opium poppy

Scientists at the University of Calgary announced Sunday they have unlocked one of the genetic secrets of the opium poppy -- a discovery that may open the door to cheaper and more readily available pain relief.

BCALGARY — Scientists at the University of Calgary announced Sunday they have unlocked one of the genetic secrets of the opium poppy — a discovery that may open the door to cheaper and more readily available pain relief.

Biological sciences professor Peter Facchini said they have traced the unique genes that allow the opium poppy to make codeine and morphine.

“The enzymes encoded by these two genes have eluded plant biochemists for a half-century,” said Facchini in an interview.

“In finding not only the enzymes but also the genes, we’ve made a major step forward. It’s equivalent to finding a gene involved in cancer or other genetic disorders.”

The 46-year-old Toronto-born scientist has been researching the opium poppy for close to two decades and, with the help of researcher Jillian Hagel, has been trying to specifically unlock the gene secrets for two years.

Hagel did much of the legwork, he said.

Using high-tech scanning equipment, she sorted through up to 23,000 different genes contained on one tiny slide.

More than a year ago, on Feb. 4, 2009, she ultimately located a gene called codeine /O/-dementhylase, which produces the plant enzyme that converts codeine into morphine.

“It was finding the needle in a haystack,” said Facchini.

“It was one of her eureka moments. Science is like that. It’s a lot of tedious work, then you have these seconds of sheer excitement because you know you’ve found something.”