Why Synthetic CBD Is (Probably) the Future of Cannabis Pharma
While there is a race among cannabis cultivators to have the largest greenhouse in the world, the race is on for medical cannabis biotechs to create a synthetic form of CBD, one that is not derived from the cannabis plant, but cooked up in a lab.
Greenhouses packed with those verdant, pungent plants could become relics of the past, because if you’re a medical cannabis patient, it’s not the plant that you need, it’s the cannabinoids -- and both THC and CBD can be synthesized. For medical marijuana pharmaceutical companies, synthetic cannabinoids could cut massive costs of growing the plant and quicken the FDA approval process. The first company to create and patent a CBD compound would command a serious edge in this fast-growing industry.
What is synthetic CBD?
We’re not talking about the so-called synthetic marijuana, a misnomer with the street names K2 and Spice which was turning New Yorkers into zombies a few years back. K2 is an illegal chemical sprayed on potpourri that’s smoked like marijuana, but there’s no marijuana involved. The manufacturers keep tweaking the compound to stay one step ahead of the law.
Instead, we are talking about a purified analog of CBD, a naturally occurring compound that has a relatively simple molecular structure, making it easy to produce through organic chemistry in a pharmaceutical setting. It would be synthesized in a lab, not grown in a greenhouse.
It’s important to realize that we are still in the infancy of medical cannabis. In the future, nobody will be smoking weed to reduce epileptic seizures, just as nobody chews on the barks of willow trees to relieve pain - they take aspirin. People still smoke pot, but not children with epilepsy, who take Epidiolex in the form of an oral solution to reduce their seizures. Penicillin is another treatment that originates naturally, in mold, but was synthesized and mass produced during World War II.
So it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine pharmacists, chemists and chemical engineers taking CBD one step further, and combining it with other compounds to form a completely new pharmacopeia of treatments for a myriad of diseases.
Biotechs are in a race to synthesize CBD.
Scientist at the University of California, Berkeley recently announced that they were the first to create cannabis compounds in a lab, out of yeast, through the process of biosynthesis. Companies like CannBioRex Pharmaceuticals are in race to be the first in the industry to design and develop pharmaceuticals that board-certified doctors will feel comfortable prescribing to their patients, potentially generating billions of dollars in sales.
Last year, Ginkgo Bioworks signed a $122 million deal with the Canadian cannabis company Cronos to make cannabinoid compounds in a lab. CB Therapeutics plans to fashion cannabinoids out of sugar and Hyasynth plans to make them out of yeast.
Why synthesize CBD, anyway?
The advantage of synthetic CBD, versus the plant, is that it’s relatively low cost and easier to mass produce. Presumably, it will be easier to navigate regulatory hurdles, as well, since it won’t originate in a plant with a tricky legal status.
CBD is one of 80 compounds in the marijuana plant. It’s the non-psychoactive cousin of THC, the famous compound that gets you high. CBD doesn’t get you high, but it does reduce epileptic seizures, which is why the FDA approved it for that purpose, when the agency greenlighted Epidiolex last year from GW Pharmaceuticals. CBD has also been approved for state medical marijuana programs for the treatment of chronic pain and various other indications, but this is based on anecdotal evidence and has not been supported by clinical trials.
The economics of CBD are too big to ignore.
CBD is a fast-growing subcategory of the cannabis industry, with sales tripling to $367 million from 2014 to 2017, and projected to reach $1.3 billion by 2022, according to New Frontier Data. Sales have accelerated since Congress passed the Farm Bill last year, ostensibly removing hemp from federal prohibition but leaving CBD in a legal gray area.
Now big publicly-traded retailers like CVS and Walgreens are planning to sell CBD. Within this medical space, the best way to make a profit from CBD is patent it, and the only way to patent this compound that’s in the public domain is to combine CBD with newly discovered proprietary compounds that are proven to have medical benefit.
The race to synthesize is underway.
That’s easier said than done, which is why no one’s done it yet. But the race is on!
This is the drive behind biotechs like CannBioRex and Katexco Pharmaceuticals, which are seeking to harness the properties of CBD in conjunction with other compounds to create anti-inflammatory drugs to treat multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases.
The drugs would be put through clinical trials and eventually submitted to the FDA, just like any other traditional pharmaceutical that’s synthetized in a lab from chemical compounds.
Medical cannabis isn’t just about smoking pot anymore. The so-called Second Generation of medical cannabis will come in the form of a patented pill, not from a plant firmly rooted in the public domain.