What is Cannabis Biotech?
Biotechnology – or biotech – is the utilisation of biological systems found in organisms to advance technologies particular to various fields. Biotechnology involves the adaptation of living organisms in order to further the technologies of certain walks of life. These fields could range anywhere between medical and agricultural.
Cannabis biotechnology is adaptation of cannabinoids – the chemical compounds present in the cannabis plant – for pharmaceutical purposes. Cannabis biotechnology delves deeper into the biological systems of the cannabis plant to create new medications and therapies from cannabinoids. Asides this, the cannabis biotechnology sector focuses on research advancements on cannabinoids, the endocannabinoid system, and other potentially beneficial areas.
A brief note on cannabinoids
Cannabinoids are naturally occurring chemical compounds present in the cannabis plant. With over 113 naturally occurring cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, the most popular of the compounds are Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the cannabinoid responsible for the cannabis plant’s psychoactive effects; CBD is noted to have no psychoactive effects.
A timeline on the acceptance of medical cannabis
Cannabis is no new player in the field of medicine. According to history, civilizations well before ours utilised the substance for a myriad of medical maladies.
Emperor Shen Neng, a ruler of the ancient world by Chinese legend, was one of the first world leaders to prescribe marijuana tea. This tea was prescribed to treat various illnesses including malaria and poor memory.
During the middle ages in Europe, cannabis was a staple in many folk medications. It was used to treat coughs, jaundice, and tumours. It is curious to note, though, that many medieval physicians warned against the excessive use of cannabis which they believed could result in harmful conditions such as sterility.
In 1906, the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes took a left turn as the United States (U.S) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was created. Although cannabis was not first outlawed until 1914, the creation of the FDA marked a major shift in the nation’s drug policies. Drugs were then reviewed and instated by a thorough regulatory body.
In 1970, marijuana was listed as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. The substance was earmarked as having no medical use in the U.S. and was outlawed completely. Despite earlier research on the medicinal capabilities of the plant, the American government restricted all research on the plant until now.
As of 2018, the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes became legal in 33 U.S. states and the Washington, D.C., with 10 of those states and D.C. legalising recreational cannabis as well. Cannabinoid-based medications and therapies can now be used to treat a bulk of conditions including multiple sclerosis and even cancer symptoms.
Prior to the legalisation of medical marijuana, research on the capabilities of cannabinoids for the field were virtually non-existent. However, there are currently numerous research projects – completed and on-going – on the use of cannabinoids for medications. Medical technologists are now delving deeper into the pharmaceutical capabilities of the substance. This can account for the emergence of cannabis biotechnology.
Cannabis biotech today: A developing sector
When the FDA approved Epidiolex – a drug derived from cannabis – it took a bold step in the direction of medical marijuana and cannabis biotechnology. Epidiolex, created by GW Pharmaceuticals (GWPH), is an oral solution derived from the cannabidiol (CBD). It can be used to treat two seizure disorders related to epilepsy, just as studies have suggested for a while now that cannabis products have that ability.
A small University of Colorado School of Medicine study by Dr. Margaret Gedde suggests a reduction in seizures in highly refractive pediatric epilepsy patients exposed to a cannabis treatment. Source
Today, the FDA has approved three cannabinoids as drugs:
- Cannabidiol (CBD)
Dronabinol and Naboline are synthetic cannabinoids. With the approval of certain cannabinoids for mainstream medication, cannabis biotechnologists are encouraged to continue the development of the field. The sector for cannabis biotech is still in its start-up phase.
Experts believe the field will bloom with more research and clarity into the uses of cannabinoids aside THC and CBD. The availability of numerous research studies on cannabinoids may prove helpful to ongoing studies.
Due to the legal status of the substance prior to this point, there is little knowledge on the entire scope of its capabilities. According to the U.S National Library of Medicine, there are over 350 ongoing studies on cannabinoids and molecules derived from the cannabis plant.
Asides GWPH, pharmaceuticals such as Cara Therapeutics (CARA) and AbbVie (ABBV) are working to develop medications based on cannabinoids – both naturally and synthetically. Many pharmaceuticals – such as Zynerba pharmaceuticals – have a hard time accessing the plant for research as it is still illegal on the federal level.
Final words: What could the future hold?
The sector for medical cannabis holds strong promise. As the sector develops, many biotech companies are beginning to show interest in the creation of cannabinoids. The legal status of marijuana often serves as a hindrance to research and development, and so alternatives are sought. Hence, many companies are working towards by-passing the need for cannabis by creating cannabinoids from readily available substances such as yeast.