Amyris, a California-based company focused on wellness products, announced its latest deal with biotech startup Lavvan to research and develop synthetic cannabinoids worth about $300 million. Canada’s Cronos Group closed a $122 million deal with Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks to produce lab-grown cannabinoids. Cronos Group has also partnered with German pharmaceutical and life sciences industry giant Bayer to create a microorganism, a plant microbiome, for use in the agricultural industry
“Synthetic biology is becoming a cornerstone technology in the portfolios of forward-thinking companies,” an analyst at Paradigm Capital wrote. “Companies developing products solely from the cultivation of cannabis plants will find themselves unable to compete with the manifold advantages associated with industrial-scale cannabinoid biosynthesis.”
Methods using genetic engineering will be developed using various strains of yeast to produce cannabinoids through a fermentation process.
“The potential uses of cannabinoids are vast, but the key to successfully bringing cannabinoid-based products to market is in creating reliable, consistent and scalable production of a full spectrum of cannabinoids, not just THC and CBD,” Cronos CEO Mike Gorenstein said in a press release.
Singapore, while enforcing some of the most stringent drug laws globally, is now using one of its agencies to develop medical treatments containing synthetic elements of the cannabis. Its government-run National Research Foundation, the department in charge of national research and development, launched the program in 2018 to unlock the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids. Along with the medical benefits, there is the financial incentive to promote the biotech industry in the Southeast Asian nation.
“Research into cannabinoids complements and leverages Singapore’s strengths in biomedical research, and is a niche area that Singapore can compete globally in,” a National Research Foundation spokesperson told CNBC.
Recently GW Pharmaceuticals received approval to market Epidiolex, the first cannabis-derived drug cleared by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. However, Chemical and Engineering News reports that other pharmaceutical chemical companies consider Epdiolex an aberration in this emerging field. Many firms are investing in R&D, analytical data, and manufacturing facilities in the US to support the production of cannabinoids using organic chemistry instead of extraction from the cannabis plant. Professionals in the field predict that the future of cannabinoid therapeutics will be synthetic.
GW disputes this prediction and supports using cannabinoid extracts instead of synthesized molecules. Stephen Schultz, the firm’s vice president of investor relations, explained to C&EN that GW would breed plants with ratios to treat specific diseases. If clinical trials prove its hypotheses, the firm will clone the plants and extract the cannabinoids.
“That process allows us to have a complex chemical fingerprint that is considered a single moiety by the FDA,” Schultz said.
Epidiolex is an anomaly according to Schultz being over 98 percent CBD. GW’s first product, Sativex—a muscular dystrophy treatment planned for U.S. launch—is a combination of CBD and THC. Synthetic routes are impractical in developing treatments with a complex cannabinoid fingerprint.
Scientists first studied cannabis and created synthetic cannabinoids in the 1940s. A chemist at Hebrew University in Israel, Raphael Mechoulam, worked with synthetic cannabinoids and isolated THC. Mechoulam and other scientists would create synthetic compounds based on the structure of THC.
New synthetic cannabinoids were developed in the 1990s and early 2000s. “When research on synthetic cannabinoids first started, not many people had access to the research journals with the chemical structures of the compounds,” Jenny Wiley, a behavioral pharmacologist who studies cannabinoids at RTI International, told The Scientist.
However, synthetic cannabinoids also became a street drug with deadly consequences. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20- to 30-year-old men will use synthetic cannabinoids as an alternative to cannabis. Since some products are legal to smoke, and ingredients continue to change constantly, it is perceived to be less likely to be detected during drug screenings. Deaths using synthetic cannabinoids have been reported.