Part 2: Is Mapping the Cannabis Genome the Future of Cannabis Medicine?

hemp chromosomes

Part 2: Is Mapping the Cannabis Genome the Future of Cannabis Medicine?

In Part 1 we looked at the various methods used to classify cannabis plants and the origins of terms like hemp, marijuana, indica, and sativa. In Part 2, we delve more deeply into the legal, financial, political, and medical implications for us all if we don’t get this right soon. Ultimately, the future of the cannabis industry is being blown wide open by technological advances in mapping the cannabis genome.

Confusion surrounding cannabis classification

As we established in Part 1, cannabis classification is a contentious subject, and the confusion seems to begin when we start talking about the species and subspecies of cannabis. Plant taxonomists have historically had a hard time agreeing on how to classify the Cannabis species, and legal, financial, and political implications have played a large part in this.

“A rigid mental set precludes appreciation of biological classification at the species level—the critical classification problem posed by Cannabis.”

Dr Ernest Small

Simplifying taxonomy classification

As we mentioned in Part 1, a cannabis-classification system which divides cannabis into six cultivar groups—first proposed by Dr Ernest Small in 2015—is becoming widely accepted as the most common-sense taxonomy classification system to date.

One species of cannabis

Dr Small’s research recognises only one species of cannabis, i.e. Cannabis sativa (C. sativa).

Six cannabis cultivars

He then divides cannabis into six cultivated varieties:

Species: Cannabis sativa
Cultivars Small calls it… THC CBD
1. Non-narcotic European Hemp Group Low High
2. Non-narcotic Chinese Hemp Group Low to moderate High
3. Narcotic High-THC Marijuana Group Very high Low to none
4. Narcotic THC/CBD Balanced Marijuana Group Moderate to high Moderate to high
5. Non-narcotic hybrid Cannabis Hemp Hybrids Not specified
(assume low)
Not specified
(assume high)
6. Narcotic hybrid Cannabis Marijuana Hybrids Not specified
(assume moderate to high)
Not specified
(assume moderate to high)

Classifications dictated by legal status

Access to cannabis medicine around the world is still very much dictated by its legal status in various jurisdictions. Australian patients face a system bogged down in red tape and ignorance and most have extreme difficulty accessing legal cannabis medicine, let alone high quality, full-extract cannabis. The United in Compassion campaign to Fix Dan’s Law is an example of how broken the Australian system is.

“When people are suffering needlessly, it should be a human right.”

Jim Mitchell, SBS Opinion

Vital cannabis research blocked by legal status

Instead of being driven by the medical effectiveness of cannabis, important cannabis research is still being blocked by political and legal dogma. This is exacerbated by the power of big pharma to influence government policy and the ignorant indifference of a large part of the established medical fraternity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States, where cannabis is still bafflingly federally classified in Schedule 1 as a drug with no medical use (along with heroin, LSD, and MDMA).

“This current research deficit leads regulators to make decisions based on a vacuum of information”

Ben Curren writing for Forbes

Industrial-hemp legislation worldwide

Under strict licensing, it is now legal in many countries to grow ‘industrial hemp’, providing it is low in THC. As you can see from the table below, there is no global standard for what constitutes low-THC cannabis. A prime example of this is several Australian states who all have their own legislation regarding the permissible THC level. What the crop is then used for is also severely restricted.

Where Legal level of THC (%) Official links
Europe 0.2% Link
Canada 0.3% Link
USA 0.3% Link
UK 0.2% Link
Australia 1.0%, 0.5%, 0.35%, 0.5% NSW, Tas, Vic, Qld
New Zealand 0.35% Link

USA lifts ban on growing hemp

In 2018, the United States passed legislation—known as the 2018 Farm Bill—to lift the 80-year ban on US farmers growing low-THC cannabis, also known as industrial hemp. However, the federal legal status of CBD oil in the United States is still very unclear.

“Cannabis law is a lot wackier than the weed”

Project CBD

Profiling cannabis strains with mass spectrometry

Israel’s Technion (Institute of Technology) Laboratory of Cancer Biology and Cannabinoid Research—headed by Dr David (Dedi) Meiri—created the Cannabis Database Project to profile every cannabis strain currently prescribed to Israel’s 25,000+ legal medical-cannabis users.

Using state-of-the-art mass spectrometry to profile every available cannabis strain, they looked at the other molecules present in these whole-plant extracts and the different methods of extraction. Dr Meiri’s team found that patients got very different results, even though on the surface the strains were identical or the THC:CBD profile was identical. They found that even differences in the growing locations changed the final cannabinoid profile of the plants.

This is real-world research being applied on the ground with patients, to ensure conditions and symptoms—combined with patient genetics—are matched up with the most effective known cannabis strains.

“This provides means for evidence-based recommendations for the most suitable, safe and effective Cannabis treatment.”

Laboratory of Cancer Biology and Cannabinoid Research

Using genetics to classify cannabis

Whilst taxonomy is useful (and appearance and legality largely a distraction) establishing the cannabinoid and terpene profile through genome sequencing is becoming the way of the future for classifying and selecting cannabis varieties for health, wellness, and medical uses.

“I haven’t seen a field advance in genetic understanding as quickly as I have with the cannabis plant.”

Dr Keith Allen, Computational Biologist

Marijuana chromosomes

Modern-day cannabis genetics & crossbreeding

Just as classifying cannabis species and varieties is the subject of much confusion (see Part 1), so too is obtaining consistent results among those varieties.

Part of the problem is to do with cannabis genetics and the fact that cannabis has separate male and female plants. This kind of plant is called dioecious, and it means they cross pollinate, rather than self-pollinate.

Although cross pollination is good for the long-term survival of a plant species—in that it introduces genetic variation in the offspring—it’s not good for farmers and agri-scientists who wish to produce consistently identical strains for medical uses.

This issue was also reported by Israeli researcher Dr David Meiri. As we mentioned above, Dr Meiri’s lab found that some patients achieved very different results, even though on the surface the strains were identical.

Breakthroughs in cannabis-genome research

In January 2019, Medicinal Genomics Corporation released news of their latest cannabis genome using the high-CBD Jamaican Lion cannabis strain. In 2011 they were the first company to sequence the cannabis genome. Now in 2019, they have hit a genetic milestone with a genome far more detailed than any other company so far, reaching previously unattainable levels of genome sequencing. The implications of this are far reaching for the cannabis industry.

“These new insights into the cannabis genome have implications across the entire cannabis industry.”

Medicinal Genomics, 2018

Having such a detailed genome is great news for researchers and breeders. It means—amongst other things—that we can use this far more accurate science to breed strains with the precise qualities we require for various health and medical applications.

“…researchers will be able to better identify markers for cannabinoid and terpenoid synthesis. Regulators and distributors will also be able to build a better system for categorizing and fingerprinting strains.”

Medicinal Genomics, 2018

Unjustly awarded patents threatening the cannabis industry

While the scientific significance of the genome is huge, so too are the legal implications, particularly with regard to granting valuable patents.

Patent US9095554B2

In 2015, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) controversially awarded a patent entitled, “Breeding, production, processing and use of specialty cannabis” to a Californian company called Biotech Institute. There are some claims that this unjust patent could cover 50-70% of existing cannabis strains.

“The utility patent, like the one granted to BioTech, is a patent where an applicant persuaded the examiner that the certain combinations of biochemical and genetic properties were new, and provided various strains that have those properties.”

Dale Hunt, biotechnology patent attorney

Open-source cannabis data

To avoid further disasters like the Biotech patent, open-source cannabis-data projects like the Open Cannabis Project have emerged. When people in the industry realised what had happened, they objected to the patent. However the USPTO rejected the claims on the basis that evidence that these plants already existed (i.e. prior art) had never been published.

“One very important reason to create an open data set is to create evidence of prior art, which helps to ensure that patents are not issued on plants that already exist.”

Open Cannabis Project

Using the genome to prove prior art

For those of us who have become educated on the subject, cannabis is nature’s gift to humankind. The ultimate challenge for us all is to keep cannabis out of the hands of the gatekeepers and toll collectors of the corporate and regulatory worlds. The cannabis-genome mapping efforts of Medicinal Genomics are similarly rooted in ensuring that big business does not get an unjust stranglehold on the cannabis industry, as big pharma have done in the medical world.

“We began this work to demonstrate prior art in an effort to help overturn the broad utility patents that have the potential to strangle the entire cannabis industry before it ever gets started. These patents should never have been granted in the first place and we intend to use full power of science to unlock the cannabis plants’ genetics to get these restrictive and predatory patents invalidated.”,

Brendan McKernan, Medicinal Genomics CSO

Where to from here for cannabis classification?

While plant taxonomy gives us a basic understanding of cannabis-plant classification, the future of cannabis as an effective prophylactic and curative medicine will rely on a combination of advances in genome science, detailed strain profiling worldwide, unbiased clinical research, and the bipartisan political will to put the good of humankind before the interests of big business, big pharma, and political egos.

“What I don’t think is useful is to put it in the hands of the pharmaceutical companies and to allow them to make enormous profits out of a product that actually probably can be consumed safely.”

Dr David Caldicott, Canberra


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