Genetically modifying cannabis… for science and for profit.

Nature looks at a bold new frontier (and whole new money-making opportunities) opened by fiddling around with cannabis DNA:

On 25 June, the FDA announced its approval of Epidiolex — a treatment for epileptic seizures that is based on a cannabis compound called cannabidiol (CBD)…. Many researchers hope that the agency will re-classify CBD itself, instead of just Epidiolex, so that they can more easily study this non-psychedelic component of marijuana.

Now that the FDA has approved Epidiolex, “we have a clear recognition that this plant has more potential than people credited it for, and that has reverberations that are scientific as well as legal”, says Daniele Piomelli, director of a new centre for cannabis research at the University of California, Irvine. At the very least, he says, the DEA ought to grant researchers an exemption permitting them to study CBD — especially now that people consume it and other cannabis compounds, known as cannabinoids, in states where marijuana is legal.

Oliver Kayser, a bioengineer at the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany.


[E]ven researchers who have permission to work on cannabis are restricted to one main supplier. The only facility in the United States certified to provide them with cannabis and its extracts is the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Scientists can also request permission to study a small number of synthetic cannabinoids from pharmaceutical companies, but some say these sources are too limited or expensive to be of use.

Kevin Chen, head of the biotech company Hyasynth Bio in Montreal, Canada, says that researchers have expressed interest in buying the company’s engineered CBD as soon as it scales up production. In May, a Canadian medical-cannabis company, Organigram in Moncton, announced its intent to invest Can$10 million (US$7.6 million) into Hyasynth to help boost manufacturing.

Another Canadian company, InMed Pharmaceuticals in Vancouver, is refining the production of rare cannabinoids in the bacterium Escherichia coli. Extracting useful amounts of these potentially beneficial compounds from plants is unrealistic because they occur at very low levels, says Samuel Banister, a chemist at the University of Sydney in Australia. “For minor cannabinoids,” he says, “there is a huge need for synthetic biology.”

If the DEA decides to remove only Epidiolex from the list of schedule 1 substances, and not CBD generally, researchers in the United States might not be able to take advantage of these companies’ products.