The breakneck pace of evolution in cannabis is nothing short of breathtaking. With the global market expected to surpass $66.3 billion by 2025, everyone is getting into the business and bringing with them, unprecedented levels of expertise. Experts from just about every field have refocused to advance cannabis science and technologies.
What have we learned in 2019 about cannabis, and how is this playing into technological developments? This year, the trends have revolved around the global demand for secondary cannabinoids and the therapeutic potential beyond THC. Exploring minor cannabinoids for medicinal value, improving extraction techniques, and mapping the genetic sequence are just a few of the breakthroughs we have seen this year —and we still have the fourth quarter left.
4 Scientific Developments in Cannabis from 2019
1. Cannabis Genome Sequencing for Advanced Breeding
DNA sequencing has finally commenced in the cannabis industry. With the initial, fully-mapped sequence of the plant announced in late 2018, producers and scientists alike are scrambling to uncover cannabis' genetic secrets.
The team behind the first total mapping of the cannabis genome carefully chose two strains to start: a THC-rich and CBD-rich. Considering the cannabis genome is fantastically more complex than the human sequence, there is a lot to unravel. However, these two basic genomes will help direct breeding programs and direct more predictable chemovars.
As we know, the idea of strain is but a myth. Now, with a genetic road map, we have the necessary building blocks that will likely guide all future breeding programs and strain development built on DNA. Understanding the complete genome will help hemp producers keep their crops under the legal limit of THC, and medical cannabis producers to develop specific cannabinoid profiles with higher accuracy.
Soon researchers and the commercial cannabis sector will begin to use these genetic road maps to produce genetically-based strain IDs, improved trackability from seed to sale, and improved cultivation predictability.
2. Biosynthetic Cannabinoids Are Here
Stemming from this initial genetic sequencing of cannabis, the same team of researchers also uncovered a novel new method of biosynthesis for the production of rare and highly sought after cannabinoids. By introducing newly discovered partial genetic snippets pulled from cannabis into strains of yeast, this team of researchers successfully produced CBC without the need for any conventional cultivation.
It is still early days for the biosynthesis of cannabinoids, but it's not hard to see how important this advance is for the future of cannabis in medicine. Soon researchers will have a database of which genes correlate with which cannabinoid production in cannabis. In the future, we could theoretically use bioengineered yeast of bacteria, hosted in large tanks, to pump out rare and highly desirable cannabinoids.
Global cannabis player Cronos has already partnered with a company called Ginkgo Bioworks to explore biosynthetics further. Their initial research, published in Nature, “presents a platform for the production of natural and unnatural cannabinoids that will allow for more rigorous study of these compounds and could be used in the development of treatments for a variety of human health problems.”
3. Pascal Biosciences Discovers Cannabinoids Transform Cancerous Cells
Cancerous or abnormal cells are part of normal cell division and reproduction. Under most circumstances, these cellular mutations are readily identified and eliminated by our immune system. This natural process relies on a biological mechanism called the Major Histocompatibility Complex as a means to identify problematic mutations. Unfortunately, many cancerous cells remain undetectable by this mechanism because they have turned off the Major Histocompatibility Complex expression.
Pascal Biosciences has discovered that cannabinoids help to reactivate this Major Histocompatibility Complex expression in abnormal cellular mutations. With the expression turned on, it supports the immune system in identifying and eliminating these cancerous cells.
Following this discovery, Pascal Biosciences has already explored over 400 phytocannabinoids and synthetic cannabinoids. According to Pascal CEO, Dr. Grey, “This work has enabled us to choose a specific cannabinoid with a good safety profile for human testing. We are nearing clinical development, and we have the scientific understanding and patent protection to move our product forward.” Pascal hopes to improve outcomes for a new cancer treatment called immunotherapy.
4. On-Site Hemp Extraction with Mile High Monster
The skyrocketing demand for quality CBD extractions began well before there was a scalable, commercially viable means of quality hemp extraction. In the US especially, outdated anti-hemp legislation made it nearly impossible for cultivators to cross state lines in their quest to turn their crops into CBD gold. While the law has changed, there is still significant backlogs and scarcity of food-grade extraction facilities capable of processing the volumes needed.
Mile High Labs, a GMP-certified extractor located in Colorado, spent three years building the solution to the extraction dilemma. Released in 2019, the Mile High Monster is the world's first industrial-scale, purpose-built hemp extract machine. Placed on hemp farms, it is capable of turning 50 acres of hemp per day into full-spectrum oil. This has transformed the extraction process, and drastically reduced the transportation barriers to the farmer. With only the initial on-site placements of the Monster, Mile High has increased its production capacity by 500 percent.
A Year of Focus on the Minor Cannabinoids
Non-THC cannabinoids were the star player in 2019, starting with the sequencing of cannabis DNA. By pinpointing the genes responsible for many of the minor cannabinoids, and improving extraction techniques, the proverbial floodgates are open to new research, scalability, and accessibility. It will be fascinating to see where the industry takes these scientific developments in 2019.