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Calgary scientists believe they’re close to producing non-addictive painkillers

WATCH: Dr. Peter Facchini, a plant biochemistry professor at the University of Calgary, joins Global Calgary to discuss new research he's leading that could help develop safer and less expensive opioid medication.

A University of Calgary (U of C) biochemistry professor believes his team is close to producing a safer, non-addictive painkilling medication after years of research on the subject.

Opium poppy plants have traditionally been the source for pharmaceuticals like morphine and oxycodone, however, Dr. Peter Facchini believes he’s close to replacing the plant with a fermentation process using a common item.

“We’ve been working on understanding how the plant makes morphine and codeine,” Facchini said during an interview Saturday on Global News Morning.

“We’re at the point where we have all of the genes isolated and those genes now transferred into a micro-organism — in particular, just regular baker’s yeast.”

READ MORE: For more than five years he was addicted to opioids. This is one man’s story of recovery

There are a number of benefits to producing painkillers with yeast instead of opium plants, according to Facchini. He believes the fermentation process could stabilize supply, control prices and result in safer medication for those using the drugs.

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“Because yeast is an awful lot easier to engineer, it provides much more opportunity to manipulate the structure of the molecules with the aim, ultimately, of a molecule that’s as effective as say morphine or oxycodone, but without the addictive properties,” Facchini said.

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“A non-addictive, effective opiate would change the game entirely.”

Facchini believes this breakthrough could help in the ongoing opioid epidemic. Two people in Alberta lose their lives daily to accidental opioid poisoning, according to provincial statistics.

READ MORE: This popular painkiller is surging in Canada, and one doctor is sounding the alarm

Opioids are strong synthetic painkillers that are produced to resemble opiates, like morphine, which are derived from the opium poppy.

“You need painkillers, but if you get to the point where you have an option that’s not going to lead to addiction, that should have a huge impact on the problem,” Facchini said.

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“This technical approach is one of those things that needs to be explored and I think has huge potential to help.”

Facchini predicts it will be about two years until fermented yeast could replace the opium poppy plants as the source of commercial painkilling medication.

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