From Flowers to Medicine to Alleviate Pain

Friday, April 17, 2015

Countries that grow poppies used to hold a monopoly on the ingredients to the main opiate painkilling drugs. Then in 1979, Dr. Kenner Rice of NIDDK’s Laboratory of Medicinal Chemistry (he is now at NIDA) discovered the critical chemical reaction enabling large-scale production of totally synthetic morphine, codeine, and thebaine, the three basic raw materials in opium. Thebaine itself is not used therapeutically, but it is converted into many other painkillers like oxycodone, nalbuphine, naloxone, and buprenorphine.

Dr. Rice’s method, now internationally known as the NIH Total Opiate Synthesis, is still the only practical process available for making large quantities of opium products from synthetic materials, guaranteeing reliable supplies of opiate pain relievers. Learn more about how 20th century NIH researchers created new opiate drugs and developed a synthetic source for morphine and codeine—and why.