During a discussion at a New York conference in October, Kevin Chen described a groundbreaking discovery that could be a huge push for innovation within the cannabis industry. It’s called Cellular Agriculture.
Cellular agriculture uses genetic modification to craft products with certain amounts of specified cannabinoids. Also, proponents have been applying this process elsewhere to uncured meats. However, innovators within the cannabis industry are starting to efficiently develop products rich in THC, CBD or other cannabinoids. And they are tailored to treat medical conditions and the recreational market with reliable, consistent ingredients.
The cannabinoid CBDV (cannabidivarin) has particularly received attention recently for its potential to treat patients with epilepsy. However, traditional cannabis farming cannot yield enough CBDV, experts say, but cellular agriculture could.
“There are enough groups working on this now that cellular agriculture is going to have a big role in this industry,” said Chen, president of Hyasynth Bio, a Montreal company that conducts cellular agriculture primarily for medical cannabis product development.
Using Chunks of Cannabis DNA
Cellular agriculture is a complicated process. Defined by New Harvest (which held the October conference to discuss and promote cellular agriculture) as “the production of agricultural products from cell cultures.” For that reason, experts have compared cellular agriculture to the decades-old process of creating insulin.
Cultivators take the DNA of a specified cannabinoid and recreate it in a different form. To cultivate CBDV, for example, Hyasynth “added the chunk of cannabis DNA that codes for CBDV into yeast DNA. This turns the yeast into CBDV production plants,” reported Canna News.
“We have been working on cellular agriculture for three or four years. And it’s generally quite difficult.. there’s a lot of genetic modification.,” Chen said.
Achieving Precise Amounts of Cannabinoids
Cellular agriculture is becoming a potential blessing for medical cannabis. “There’s definitely a need for high quality and larger-scale products,” Chen said. “We can’t always depend on a plant strain that’s going to grow exactly how you expect every time.”
Cellular agriculture also suits pharmaceutical companies that “need purity in these products,” said Eric Adams. Adams is the CEO of InMed Pharmaceuticals, based in Vancouver, B.C.
“The process lets us control these rare cannabinoids and make them pesticide-free.”
“You need a cost-effective source and that’s where cellular agriculture could come in,” said Avtar Dhillon. He is the board chairman for the medical cannabis company Emerald Health Therapeutics, based in Victoria, B.C.
The idea that “a molecule coming from a plant could be produced synthetically or biosynthetically,” Avtar Dhillon added, “has far-reaching implications.”
“Anybody who is developing cannabinoids through any kind of regulatory process,” he said, will consider synthetic ways of manufacturing in the near future.
In addition, high-CBD products are being developed to treat inflammation and anxiety. There have been hints that they are working on high-THC products to feed the surging recreational cannabis market. “The fastest-growing [market] segment are edibles, “ Adams said. “Here you can start with the ingredients you want and mix them more consistently.”
Focus on Medical Market
The bulk of cellular agriculture efforts are currently being directed at the medical market. Take CBDV, for example. A cannabinoid similar but not identical to CBD, it occurs only in small traces of certain strains. GW Pharmaceuticals is in phase 2 of evaluating its ability to treat autism spectrum disorders and epilepsy.
“There is early evidence [ that CBDV] could be beneficial” in treating neurodegenerative disorders, said Dhillon, a former family medicine physician.
“There is huge potential for having particular cannabinoids acting on a multitude of disorders,” Dhillon added. “What we don’t know is will that be achieved by one cannabinoid or will we need a mixture of cannabinoids?”
3 to 4 Years Away
It seems like the market is “at least three-to-four-years away” from having synthetic cannabinoid products approved for medical treatment. As a result, “we are not going to see the industry switchover from farming to cellular agriculture overnight,” Dhillon noted.
So, if advocates are correct, one day this new scientific process may become a lot more common.
“We are definitely dedicating a substantial amount of resources behind development,” Adams said. “We are aggressively pursuing it.”