Contraceptive pill produced from potato toxin

Dutch researcher Patrick Vronen from Wageningen University has investigated several methods for converting toxins in high-starch potatoes into a raw material for steroid hormones used, for example, in contraceptive pills.

The molecular structure of the potato toxin solanidine, which is found in high-starch potatoes, is similar to that of diosgenine. Diosgenine is the current precursor for synthetic hormones. Patrick Vronen converted solanidine into dehydropregnenolone acetate (DPA). This substance is an intermediary product in the production of hormones that are similar to progesterone and cortisone.

The interest in the conversion of potato toxins into the intermediary DPA, is partly due to the increasing price of the current raw material for steroid hormones. The current precursor for diosgenine is isolated from Costus speciosus, a ginger species from China. The availability of diosgenine and the monopoly position of China in the supply of the raw material both pose risks.

The direct conversion of the potato toxin solanidine into the intermediary product DPA would have a signifcant economic advantage because the existing DPA factories could continue to operate. In these factories the raw material from ginger is converted into DPA, which is then processed into the desired steroid hormone products. Therefore the existing factories could be used to convert the DPA obtained from the potato toxin solanidine into the final hormone product.

Vronen tested various methods for converting the toxin into the raw material but none of these resulted in the desired end product. Only a reaction involving the toxic substance bromine cyanide resulted in a product from which the intermediary DPA could be made. With the aid of calculations, Vronen then showed that bromocyanide is one of the few reagents that can break the correct bonds within solanidine. However, due to the toxicity of bromine cyanide this method cannot be used to produce hormones on a large scale.

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