NPR ran a story this morning about a new biotech company that has recently completed sequencing the DNA of cannabis sativa, but here’s the catch: the company in question is doing this because it wants to breed marijuana plants with an extremely low THC content, while also boosting other compounds in the plant that they believe have therapeutic traits.
The company, Medicinal Genomics, is run by CEO Kevin McKernan who is also its founder. McKernan says that there are eighty-four other compounds within cannabis sativa that work to fight pain and even shrink cancer tumors. Since anti-pot laws prevent researchers in most countries to engage in hands-on study of the plant, McKernan has decided to embrace the concept of opencourcing: he’s published his research results on Amazon’s EC2 public data cloud…for free.
McKernan has an office in Massachusetts, but he does his labwork in the Netherlands, where he has legal access to marijuana plants for DNA extraction. He’s spent the bulk of his professional life studying tumors in human beings, but he told reporters that several of his friends with cancer have asked him whether they could benefit from the use of medical marijuana. It was their plight which piqued his interest in the emerging medical research on the healing properties of the plant.
Later, McKernan learned about Sativex, a German-made cannabis-derived drug used to treat the muscle stiffness associated with MS. Sativex contains THC but it also has a high concentrate of CBD, which – according to research – minimizes the psychoactive effects of THC. Sativex is available in Germany, Span, and the United Kingdom, and is also in trials to see if it has a positive effect on cancer pain.
Sativex, McKernan believes, might be the first of a line of future pharmaceuticals using cannabis to treat illnesses without the social stigma of smoking weed.
In his interview with NPR, McKernan said, “We know which genes govern CBD and THC, but not the other 83 compounds. Now that we’ve sequenced this genome, we can sequence other strains, and then we can tie the differences in DNA to different traits.”
A key part of cannabis research, McKernan emphasizes, is making the research data easily available, especially since many scientists around the world want to study it, but can’t because they cannot obtain grow-licenses.
He elaborated, “A lot of people who want to contribute to this field can’t, but now that this information is available, a lot of research can get done without growing any plants.”