GSK, J&J push for genetic engineering of opium

A Tasmanian poppy field--Courtesy of Periptus, Creative Commons (CC-BY SA 3.0)

A battle over genetic engineering is going on within the pharmaceutical industry. Makers of opioids want a larger, more certain supply of raw materials, most of which originate in Tasmania, the island state next to Australia. GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), which control most of the needed supplies for the industry, want authorities to approve genetic engineering so opium farming can be both expanded and made less susceptible to pests and so they can assure their customers they can keep up with demand.

"They look at the map of the world, see Tasmania at the bottom, and say, 'Are we taking a hemispheric risk, and putting all our eggs in one basket?'" Steve Morris, the general manager of opiates for GlaxoSmithKline, told The New York Times.

Tasmania produces about 85% of the global supply of thebaine, the opium poppy extract used to make Oxycontin and other similar drugs. It produces all of the oripavine in the world, used to make treatments for heroin overdoses. It produces 25% of the world supply of morphine and codeine, which continue to be used widely outside of the U.S.

Most of the thebaine goes to the U.S. to companies like Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin, a drug that generates about $2 billion in sales. But companies that buy from GSK and J&J, worry that at current demand a bad harvest could leave them short of supplies. The two drug companies are trying to convince the Tasmanian government to legalize genetic engineering for poppies. They also want approval to grow and export poppy extracts from a restricted area of the Australian mainland to expand and diversify production.

Farmers and government officials in Tasmania are opposed to allowing production on Australia because of the competition but mixed on genetic engineering. Proponents say if they don't, other areas of the world will and they could lose their place at the top of the market. "If Tasmania continues with a ban on it," longtime poppy farmer Michael Badcock told The New York Times, "Tasmania may get left behind."

- read the NYT story (sub. req.)