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Is Cellular Agriculture the Future of Medical Cannabis?

For cannabis growers serving their state’s medical marijuana programs, their business lives and dies on producing crops with consistent cannabinoid ratios. Now proponents of a new form of genetic engineering hope to ease that difficulty.

Cellular agriculture is the practice of taking DNA from a particular plant and recreating it in a different form. For cannabis growers, it offers the possibility of easily generating cannabinoids which are difficult to otherwise produce, but it may also signal huge changes to the industry.

Kevin Chen, president of Montreal, Canada, based Hyasynth Bio, says that the cellular agriculture techniques his company is working on will be tailored for the medical cannabis industry, and will make medicine product much more efficient. “There’s definitely a need for high quality and larger-scale products,” he said. “We can’t always depend on a plant strain that’s going to grow exactly how you expect every time.”

Developing successful cellular agriculture methods isn’t easy or quick, but successfully modified cells can work miracles. One such technique adds a bit of cannabis DNA, that codes for the cannabinoid cannabidivarin (CBDV), into yeast DNA, turning the yeast into a factory that produces CBDV.

Avtar Dhillon, board chairman for Emerald Health Therapeutics, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, says that cellular agriculture could be the cost-effective source of cannabinoids that pharmaceutical companies have been looking for. “There is huge potential for having particular cannabinoids acting on a multitude of disorders,” he said. “What we don’t know is will that be achieved by one cannabinoid or will we need a mixture of cannabinoids?”

Growers of medical cannabis may well look on cellular agriculture as a rising competitor, and with good reason. When the legal barriers to cannabis research get low enough, U.S. pharmaceutical companies will be racing to patent their own formulas based on various cannabinoids tailored to specific ailments.

However, Dhillon expects it will be at least three to four years before synthetic cannabinoid products are approved for medical treatment, and that’s through Canada’s health system, which is considerably less entrenched against cannabis than our own. “We are not going to see the industry switch over from farming to cellular agriculture overnight,” he said. If it does prove to be the future of medical cannabis, it’s still well over the horizon for U.S. growers.

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