Synthetic Cannabinoids: The Harbinger of Cannabis Pharmaceuticals
June 27th, 2019
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Many people hear the phrase ‘synthetic’ cannabinoids and immediately think of deadly designer drugs that have swept the recreational market. But synthetic cannabinoids refer to any cannabinoids that are created through chemical or biological processes other than the cultivation and extraction of cannabis plants. These processes could help make cannabinoids much cheaper and chemically-precise — key attributes for pharmaceutical development.
Let’s take a look at the rise of synthetic cannabinoids and how they could eventually pave the way for cannabinoids to finally realize their potential as pharmaceutical drugs.
How Insulin Could Provide a Roadmap
Insulin, a peptide hormone produced by beta cells of the pancreas and arguably the most successful drug ever, provides the perfect case study for why synthetic drugs are valuable.
Diabetes affects nearly 10% of the U.S. population, or about 30 million people, as well as millions more around the world. In diabetes patients, the pancreas produces very little or no insulin, which makes it difficult for them to regulate blood sugar. This inability to regulate blood sugar can lead to a host of complications that are common in diabetic patients, including obesity, fatigue, frequent infection and other issues.
Before insulin’s discovery in the 1920s, diabetic children rarely lived a year after diagnosis and five percent of adults died within two years. The roughly 20% of adults that did live more than ten years often experienced complications like blindness, loss of limbs, kidney failure, stroke and heart attacks. Previous attempted treatments ranged from bleeding patients to dosing them with opium to starving them — all without much success.
Scientists had long suspected that the key to controlling glucose levels lay in the pancreas, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that Canadian surgeon Frederick Banting identified insulin. Between the 1920s and 1950s, purified animal-sourced insulin was the only type of insulin available to diabetics. The process was both expensive and time-consuming since it required that animals be raised and insulin extracted from their pancreas.
In 1978, Arthur Riggs and Keiichi Itakura created the first genetically-engineered ‘human’ insulin using E. coli as a ‘factory’. The discovery made it possible to mass produce insulin at a very low cost, making the drug easily available to millions of diabetics worldwide. The discovery saved millions of lives and generated billions of dollars for the pharmaceutical companies behind the development and commercialization of the treatment.
How To Create Synthetic Cannabinoids
Synthetic cannabinoids may not address as dire of a population as insulin, but it could offer new treatment options for a wide range of medical conditions. Since synthetic cannabinoids can be developed with the utmost purity and accuracy, they could quickly become preferred by researchers for clinical trials that require exceptional precision and eventually by patients and physicians looking for predictable results from medical treatments.
There are two common ways to produce synthetic cannabinoids. Chemical and biosynthesis:
- Chemical Synthesis – Companies like Cardiol Therapeutics Inc. (TSX: CRDL) (OTC: CRTPF), in partnership with Noramco, chemically-synthesize cannabinoids in the same way that pharmaceutical companies create small molecule drugs — by using physical and chemical manipulations involving one or more reactions. The company plans to introduce its 100% pharmaceutical CBD products to the Canadian market later this year.
Cardiol recently announced plans for an international clinical trial of the effectiveness of its pharmaceutical CBD product in the treatment of acute myocarditis. The trials are being initiated under the orphan drug status. “The U.S. orphan drug program was successfully utilized to accelerate the first FDA approval of CBD for the treatment of rare forms of pediatric epilepsy and significant shareholder value was created in the process,” stated David Elsley, President and CEO of Cardiol Therapeutics. “Given the mortality and the significant morbidity risk associated with acute myocarditis, we believe there is a similar opportunity in pursuing an expedited development program of our CardiolRx pharmaceutical CBD formulation for this serious orphan disease which has no accepted standard of care.”
- Biosynthesis- Willow Biosciences Inc. (CSE: WLLW) uses biosynthesis to create cannabinoids using yeast, enzymes, or other living organisms that can act as anabolism factories. Willow Biosciences believes that these new production methods could result in purer cannabinoids that could be mass-produced at a much lower price and on a much shorter timeframe than conventional cannabis cultivation and extraction methods.
Led by groundbreaking researcher Dr. Facchini, Professor of Plant Biochemistry at the University of Calgary and Willow’s Chief Science Officer, the company owns proprietary yeast-based lab strains that produce CBD, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and cannabigerol (CBG).
- Biosynthesis – FSD Pharma Inc. (CSE: HUGE) — through its investment in and partnership with Solarvest BioEnergy Inc., will carry out a research project using its algal expression system for the purpose of developing a proof of concept that algae can express pharmaceutical-grade cannabinoids.
“We are delighted to have forged this collaboration with the Solarvest team and their leading-edge research using the SVS algal technology to produce pharma-grade bio-synthetic cannabinoids,” stated Zeeshan Saeed, Founder and President of FSD Pharma.
The benefits of synthetic cannabinoids are numerous, particularly given the strict regulation of the cannabis industry. Naturally-derived cannabinoids are not nearly as consistent as synthetic pharmaceuticals and many cultivators have struggled with pesticide and heavy metal contamination. These issues are easily transferred into extracts and other products where they can become dealbreakers for pharmaceutical regulators.
Synthetic cannabinoids could address these issues by ensuring 100% purity, while simultaneously eliminating the need for large cultivation facilities, security personnel, extraction equipment and everything else that’s currently required to produce cannabinoids.
Investing in Synthetic Cannabinoids
There are many different public and private companies working on synthetic cannabinoid development, including Cardiol Therapeutics Inc. (TSX: CRDL), Willow Biosciences Inc. (CSE: WLLW), and FSD Pharma Inc. (CSE: HUGE). Investors may want to keep an eye on these companies and others as they look to create new high-volume, precise and low-cost methodologies for cannabinoid development.
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