An opioid crisis is currently sweeping across Canada and other parts of the world. For the past two decades, the number of deaths related to opioids, which are usually prescribed for pain relief, has been rising steadily in Canada. To address this problem, Vincent Martin, Concordia University Research Chair in Microbial Engineering and Synthetic Biology, is seeking to develop new analgesic molecules similar to opioids such as morphine, codeine or oxycodone, but without their harmful side effects.

The researcher and his team are working with Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a yeast commonly used to make bread and beer. They are engineering its membrane to produce animal sterol (cholesterol) rather than fungal sterol (ergosterol), a genetic manipulation that allows the yeast to express the class of receptors responsible for analgesic effects in humans, or G protein-coupled receptors. The result is a human-like opioid biosensor.

This platform can detect the presence of opioids in its environment. This opens the door to the development of more effective, or even completely novel, analgesic molecules. The main advantage of this non-traditional approach is speed. The researchers can screen many more samples of this synthetic opioid biosensor than human cells, which are more complex to study. On the long term, Vincent Martin believes that the biosensor could help tackle the public health crisis related to opioid overdoses and deaths.