‘Designer strains’ of cannabis could cure more ills

An Israeli crop developer aims at maximizing marijuana’s medical benefits while reducing its high

A patient purchases medicinal cannabis in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)
A patient purchases medicinal cannabis in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)

Two Israeli companies that have been working to improve medical marijuana have submitted applications for the approval of two new cannabis strains genetically bred to manage medical conditions more effectively than those current available.

Israel is one of about a dozen countries and US states that allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and one of the few where growing cannabis for use in medical treatment is legal. Under rules adopted last year, patients who want to use marijuana to relieve chronic pain or treat other conditions (such as psychosis) apply to one of 31 authorized doctors for a prescription, which is dispensed at authorized pharmacies.

There are eight licensed growers in Israel, one of which is a company called Seach Ltd. Seach has teamed up with an Israeli software developer called BreedIT, which has devised a technique to help breeders modify crops to emphasize specific traits. The new joint development project, formed in August, is called KanaboSeed.

The BreedIT system is based in part by research conducted by Professors Haim Rabinowitch and Nachum Kedar of Hebrew University, most famous for their work in developing popular strains of cherry tomatoes and perfecting long-life tomatoes that contain a ripening inhibitor gene to guarantee a longer shelf life.

The new technology, according to BreedIT CEO Dr. Oded Sagee, is essential to the development of the medical marijuana industry – which Sagee believes is set for a major worldwide expansion. “We decided to develop an organized breeding program to assist breeders to develop new breeds of cannabis,” Sagee said in an interview earlier this year. Currently, he said, the available strains are not optimized for medical use. “We believe that with our knowledge and background we will be able to develop new breeds that will be more effective,” he added.

Sagee, along with the other researchers working in the nascent medical marijuana business, is hoping to develop strains of cannabis that have improved CBD-to-THC ratios. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects, and is the component of cannabis that most interests casual users of cannabis; the more THC, the better the high. Those who use marijuana to relieve chronic pain also seek strains with higher levels of THC than CBD; those strains are more effective at masking pain.

CBD, or cannabidiol, 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. 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. Sagee said that KanaboSeed is working with researchers to develop “designer strains” of cannabis that will contain components to treat specific medical issues, without the psychotropic effects of THC.

The applications submitted by KanaboSeed, said Sagee, “are just the first of what we anticipate will be a line of new potential cannabis varieties that KanaboSeed is developing to address specific medical uses. We intend to capitalize on the commercialization of new varieties, as allowed by the laws and regulations, in Israel and other countries where regulation permits the use of medical cannabis.”

The Agriculture Ministry and the Rural Development Plant Breeders’ Rights Council will review the applications. Hearings will be held about granting the license (no date has been set), with the public invited to give their opinions. The company will grow the new strains (on land belonging to Seach), which will be evaluated by the agencies, and once approved, the company will be granted a registration (the equivalent of a patent) for the strains.

Shay Avraham Sarid, KanaboSeed’s manager of Research and Development, said that the applications were “an important milestone for KanaboSeed. The BreedIT team contributes significant value to our development efforts, most notably the ability to streamline the breeding process. In addition to saving time, we are also developing new varieties more cost-effectively. Together we are building a product pipeline that will provide numerous opportunities for revenue growth going forward.”

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