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31-May-2012

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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Opium poppies pave the way for a cancer-killing compound



Tasmanian poppy fields. Poppies are grown commercially for the production of pharmaceuticals ranging from the analgesics, morphine and codeine to the cough suppressant and anti-tumor agent, noscapine. Despite noscapine being described almost 200 years ago, the genes involved in its synthesis have not to date been identified. Winzer et al., now report on a ten-gene cluster responsible for the production of noscapine in opium poppy. This discovery should enable improvement in commercial production of noscapine and related bioactive alkaloid molecules.
[Photo by Carol Walker]

The opium poppy plant, Papaver somniferum, is the source of certain illegal narcotics, like morphine and heroin. But, the plant also produces a non-addictive compound called noscapine that acts as both a cough suppressant and tumor-killing agent in humans.

Now, researchers have discovered exactly how this opium poppy plant makes the cancer-killing noscapine—and they say it may help scientists produce the compound (and others like it) in the laboratory.

Thilo Winzer and colleagues began their study with a strain of opium poppies that produced high levels of noscapine and then worked backwards to follow the trail of genes that had been expressed in the plant. The researchers eventually honed in on a small cluster of 10 specific genes that appeared to be the key to noscapine production.

According to the researchers, opium poppy plants that harbor this 10-gene cluster on both chromosomes produce very high levels of noscapine, while those that have the gene cluster on just one chromosome produce less. Poppies that lack the gene cluster completely don't produce any noscapine, they say.

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