Cannabis Research: Breaking Ground in Recent Years

The cannabis industry has introduced a branch of science that’s still in its infancy. The advancement of biochemistry and genetics research led to discoveries about cannabis that may transform medicine as we know it. It’s unknown how long human beings have examined the cannabis plant. Historians claim that research dates back to more than 50,000 years ago. But modern day research capabilities are finally unlocking the mysteries about cannabis, laying the foundation for a new world where big pharma politics won’t determine a human beings’ access to medicine. With all due respect to every researcher that spends countless hours in the lab freezing and crushing samples to isolate DNA, the works of two particular scientists opened the door for this foreseeable future.

Dr. John Page (Canada) and Dr. Raphael Mechoulam (Israel) have done the most comprehensive work with cannabis in the history of mankind. Dr. Page sequenced the marijuana genome and published his findings in 2011 for future researchers to build off of. Dr. Mechoulam is considered the “godfather” of cannabis research. He discovered THC more than fifty years ago and recently engineered a cannabis plant that’s rich in cannabidiol (CBD) and has only 1-2% of THC. Both men sought to present cannabis as a medicinal solution to many of the world’s illnesses.

Have you ever wondered about the major chemical components of cannabis? Did you ever want to know how it’s made? It would be nearly impossible to discuss the 30,000 genes that make up cannabis, but here is a broad explanation into the biosynthesis of THC and CBD.

It all starts with a chemical substance known as Malonyl-CoA, produced by the cannabis plant through a series of enzyme catalyzed reactions during energy production. The enzyme Olivetol Synthase ultimately catalyzes an aldol condensation reaction, converting Malonyl-CoA to Olivetol. Olivetol(link is external) is carboxylated to the THC/CBD precursor known as Olivetolic Acid.

image via Wikepedia

Next, Olivetolic Acid is converted to Cannabigerolic Acid by the enzyme Aromatic Prenyltransferase. At this point, Cannabigerolic Acid is either broken down by separate enzymes to produce THC and CBD. In essence, THCA Synthase converts Cannabigerolic Acid to THC. CBDA Synthase converts Cannabigerolic Acid to CBD.

image via leafscience

Dr. Johnathan Page(link is external) had been performing cannabis research since the late 90’s. In 2009, he was approached by Dr. Tim Hughes, genomics professor at the University of Toronto, who brought up the concept of doing something that had never been done before, sequencing the cannabis genome. Using DNA from the Purple Kush strain, both scientists led a team of researchers to unlock the genetic code of cannabis. A major finding that they discovered was that marijuana cannabis and hemp cannabis harbor a genetic code that is nearly identical. The major difference between the two is that marijuana hemp expresses the genes for the cannabinoid pathway. The marijuana hemp contains the regulatory controls (transcription factors) that increase the expression of genes for the cannabinoid pathway. This sheds light on how so many different strains of marijuana have been created. The researchers simply “turn up” the expression of these cannabinoid enzymes to modify their plants. Dr. Page and his team feel that their work on cannabis is an important step in understanding plant properties for agriculture and medicine. According to Page, “we felt making the genome itself available for researchers worldwide could really benefit research on all forms of this plant, both hemp and marijuana types.”

Dr. Mechoulam, the first person to discover THC, wanted to further his fifty years of cannabis research by creating a cannabis plant that had no trace of THC and high amount of CBD. The idea was to inhibit the THCA Synthase enzyme and create a plant that only produces the medicinal non-euphoric component CBD, a highless cannabis plant. He named the Indica species plant Avidekel. Mechoulam wanted to find a source of CBD that could eliminate the “bell-shaped curve” effectiveness of modified CBD which only works at a limited dose range.

Although Dr. Mechoulam wasn’t able to completely eliminate THC from his plant, he was able to reduce the saturation to about 2%, more than anyone else has been able to do. The plant can be used for treating diseases (link is external) like rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, liver inflammation, heart disease and diabetes without any side effects.

Dr. Page’s work is now being used by geneticists all over the world. At the University of Colorado, researchers are un-mapping the genome of more strains(link is external) of cannabis in order to associate phenotypes with specific chromosome regions, pin pointing the secondary metabolites that each strain produces, unlocking the medicinal benefits of each metabolite.

As it stands, the production, possession or distribution of Olivetol is legal all around the world. Yet, the growth of cannabis plants on a worldwide stage is virtually illegal. Still, the few countries that allow extensive cannabis research have opened the doors to a new day where concrete data will establish cannabis as an indispensable tool for human health. Big Pharma’s power and inability to patent the plant won’t be enough to silence the voters. Imagine a society where senior citizens can grow their own medicine to treat rheumatoid arthritis; individuals who suffer from anxiety, insomnia, pain or hunger-loss can have legal medicine cultivated in their own backyard. Such a place would be a better place, better than what we have now.

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