Biochemists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing have managed to genetically modify and recreate the biochemistry pathways found in the coca plant, using a close plant relative to tobacco.
The findings will help researchers better understand the chemical makeup of the world’s most popular party drug — cocaine, as researchers were only able to map part of the coca plant’s biochemistry, up until this point.
Although exciting news for certain members of society, the study was designed purely to better understand cocaine in a clinical setting — not recreationally. Cocaine has a long history of medical use and is still today used as a topical anaesthesia in some pharmaceutical nasal sprays.
Sheng-Xiong Huang, the lead study author, told New Scientist “At present, the available production of cocaine in tobacco is not enough to meet the demand on a mass scale.” Experts say the process is not cheap either, so authorities believe that illicit drug manufacturers will not be quick to replicate the new process.
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According to the UN’s most recent World Drug Report, close to 2,000 tons of pure cocaine is produced globally every year, using 234,200 ha of land mass to cultivate. Even during COVID, cocaine production grew by 11%.
Cocaine is a fascinating subject. Not only because of its obviously colourful history, once used for a range of medical purposes dating back to the 1800s, but also because of its chemistry.
Cocaine is a naturally occurring substance, or “tropane alkaloid,” found in the leaves of the Erythroxylum coca plant. Although the white powder we all know is commonly snorted or rubbed into the gums, coca leaves can be chewed to achieve the same effect.
The study, which was published in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society, revealed two previously unidentified enzymes known as EnCYP81AN15 and EnMT4 “necessary for the biosynthesis” in cocaine.
“This study not only reports a near-complete biosynthetic pathway of cocaine and provides new insights into the metabolic networks of tropane alkaloids (cocaine and hyoscyamine) in plants but also enables the heterologous synthesis of tropane alkaloids in other (micro)organisms, entailing significant implications for pharmaceutical production,” wrote the study authors
Benjamin Lichman, a plant biologist at the University of York, told New Scientist the discovery “may allow pharmaceutical companies to ferment it [cocaine], essentially, and so completely get rid of plant-based production.”
But how much cocaine are we talking about? Well, unfortunately (for some), nowhere near Pablo Escobar’s level. Researchers managed to yield 400 nanograms of cocaine from a plant known as Nicotiana benthamiana — a close relative to the tobacco plant. To put that into perspective, that is about 25% of the yield compared to an average coca plant.
Over 20 million people use cocaine every year, according to the 2022 World Drug Report. And many countries are realising the traditional approach to handling its recreational use is no longer working.
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Canada announced earlier this year that it will temporarily decriminalise the possession of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA starting in 2023, the BBC reports. Other parts of the world including the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and some American states are following suit, too.
It may be a while before seeing tobacco-grown cocaine dispensaries on street corners across the globe. But nonetheless, it is good to see science continuing its efforts to better understand the effects of popular drugs like cocaine. Understanding the short- and long-term effects of these substances can help inform public policy and support efforts to reduce the harm caused by drug use.
Recent research has also identified potential treatments for cocaine addiction, including behavioural therapies and medication-assisted treatments. By continuing to study the effects of cocaine and other drugs, researchers can develop new interventions to reduce the harm caused by drug use and support those struggling with addiction.