Could the future of weed exist without weed, itself?
Pharmaceutical companies are looking to the wisdom of cannabis in hopes of emulating its cannabinoids, or chemical compounds, but aim to make medicine without using the actual plant.
Through a process called biosynthesis, three-year-old company InMed Pharmaceuticals creates cannabinoids that are biologically identical to those found in nature. The company uses those cannabinoids in topical treatments for diseases like glaucoma or epidermolysis bullosa, a rare genetic skin disorder, often in children.
“We do not grow anything and have no interaction with plant. You don’t smoke our products,” Eric Adams, CEO of InMed tells Jane Street. “We’re looking at diseases that aren’t very obvious and had to create unique delivery systems with these compounds.”
During biosynthesis, portions of 3D printed, synthetic DNA modeled after the genes in cannabis are implanted into a living organism, like bacteria. That genetically modified organism can then produce the desired cannabinoid instead of what it would typically make.
“So what we do is take E. Coli, take out their genes so they don’t make anything, and then put in the gene for the cannabinoid that you want to have made,” Adams says. “Because they make these complex molecules, they’re preordained to make things like cannabinoids and insulin, so we hijacked them to do the work for us.”
Hence the cannabinoids produced through this process are not technically synthetic. This method was pioneered by a company called Lily, which introduced insulin DNA into an E. Coli bacterial cell in order to produce insulin that’s identical to its naturally occurring counterpart for diabetes patients. “No one ever thought to use this process for cannabinoids,” says Adams.
InMed works with over 90 different cannabinoids, except for THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), marijuana’s most prominent, psychoactive compound. “We wanted to avoid the psychotropic effect,” he says.
By avoiding the plant material itself, companies like InMed can go forward with cannabinoid therapy and take a “strict pharmaceutical approach,” Adams says. Because of marijuana’s murky legal status, it’s otherwise difficult to conduct clinical trials that would support hard and fast claims about cannabinoid medicine. FDA-approved pharmaceutical medicine provides a degree of quality control, information about contraindications with other medications, and other assurances that might benefit patients like children, he adds.
InMed is still a few years out from dispensing its medications on the market. “Right now we’re finalizing our topical formulation,” says Adams. But they’re not the only pharmaceutical company looking to weed for inspiration. Others include Teewinot Life Sciences, which aims to synthetically reproduce various cannabinoids and terpenes (marijuana’s aromatic molecules), and Kalytera, a cannabinoid company working on synthetic medication to treat osteoporosis and bone fractures.
According to the pharmaceutical perspective, medicine made from plant material, grown outside or in variable environments, lacks the reliability and consistency of lab-made products. The manufactured cannabinoid medications also don’t require the same time commitment, or water and electric resources that cannabis cultivation facilities do.
Some might argue, however, that cannabinoid medicine is most effective because of the entourage effect — the synergistic relationship among all the plant’s chemicals — cannabinoids and terpenes, alike. Manufactured medications that isolate specific cannabinoids are deprived of this naturally occurring relationship.
“Focusing too much on one cannabinoid will dilute the therapeutic effects of the whole plant,” says Justin Calvino, board member for the California Growers Association. “We as small farmers are breeding these high-cannabinoid strains, stabilizing them and doing the work it takes to create this whole plant medicine.”