Australian cannabis tech firm teams up with Hebrew U

Israeli researchers are developing new marijuana strains for medical patients, and possibly for recreational users

Cannabis plants at a growing facility in northern Israel, 2010. (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)
Cannabis plants at a growing facility in northern Israel, 2010. (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

Medical marijuana is already legal in nearly two dozen US states, but the golden ticket for the marijuana industry is recreational use. The expectation that at least 18 US states will legalize pot in the coming years has given the marijuana industry a major impetus to develop cannabis strains that can be mass-marketed within the legal constraints that jurisdictions are likely to impose on the strength and effectiveness of consumer-marketed marijuana.

Israel, perhaps surprisingly to some, is playing a major role in the development of what is set to be a multi-billion dollar industry. Although the research being done in Israel on new strains is officially for medical products, the results are likely to be applied to recreational products when they become legal, many experts say.

The US isn’t the only country toying with the idea of recreational marijuana; Australia, already a major consumer of cannabis, has been moving slowly towards legalization, or at least decriminalization, for decades. Now, Australia’s first cannabis tech company, PhytoTech Medical, is teaming up with Yissum Research Development Company, the technology transfer company of Hebrew University, to develop breeds of cannabis with varying ratios of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to Cannabidiol (CBD).

THC is the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects, and is the component of cannabis that most interests casual users of cannabis. A high THC ratio is also important for those seeking to relieve chronic pain. CBD has been shown in many studies to have important medical benefits, such as in the treatment of schizophrenia, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, liver inflammation, heart disease and diabetes, among others.

A good example of engineered cannabis is Avidekel, a strain developed by Israeli cannabis breeder Tikun Olam, which has a very high level of CBD and a very low level of THC. Pending legislation in a number of US states on marijuana – medical and/or recreational – will require lower levels of THC, so the development of strains with the right balance is crucial to ensure that they conform to the laws set to be passed.

PhytoTech has been setting itself up to become Australia’s main supplier of medical marijuana, if and when it becomes legal, and the research being done with Yissum is specifically to develop cannabis strains for the treatment of a variety of medical conditions. Australia already has one of the highest per capita rates of pot use in the world (an estimated one third of adults in the country use it annually), and use by individuals has been effectively decriminalized in many localities – making the country a likely candidate to approve recreational use at some point in the future, as is occurring in the US.

PhytoTech recently floated an IPO on the Australian Stock Exchange in preparation for the likelihood that cannabis will become legal in one or more Australian states (Victoria, the second-largest state in the country, is likely to legalize medical marijuana this year). The company raised about $5 million and the IPO was overly subscribed, with demand high for shares in the country’s first publicly traded cannabis firm.

For medical patients, PhytoTech hopes to develop with Yissum an improved, oral capsule formulation and transbuccal delivery system that consists of a flexible, muco-adhesive patch that will release the active ingredients of cannabis in a controlled manner. The system, said Boaz Wachtel, managing director of PhytoTech Medical, will “help avoid problems such as lack of standardization of drug concentration, and health risks stemming from more traditional ways of absorbing cannabis, such as smoking.”

“We are very pleased to collaborate with PhytoTech in developing the inventions of Professors Domb and Hoffman for the purpose of delivering the active components in cannabis,” said Yaacov Michlin, CEO of Yissum. “Medical cannabis is increasingly being used for a variety of indications, such as reducing nausea during chemotherapy and relieving pain and muscle spasticity in MS patients. Development of state-of-the-art delivery systems for the active ingredients will undoubtedly pave the way for a wider variety of clinical indications for these types of drugs.”

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