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A new biotech company, Hyasynth, has created genetically engineered yeast that can produce cannabinoids. The breakthrough could potentially lead to a much larger range of cannabinoid-based drugs. The question is why go through all that trouble when you can just grow cannabis?

It’s the little things that count

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Kevin Chen is the co-founder of Hyasynth, a biotech firm based out of Montreal. They have successfully produced pure CBG (cannabigerol) from the engineered yeast and say that the technology has the potential to expand research potential and medications in the area of cannabinoids. The most well-known cannabinoids are THC and CBD, which are found in plentiful supply in medical marijuana. Other cannabinoids, like CBG, are often found in much smaller concentrations, making obtaining research level quantities difficult.

Chen says the metabolic system of the yeast is changed to get the molecules desired, then genes from the plant are inserted into the yeast’s DNA. His firm isn’t the only one working on the technology of producing cannabinoids from altered yeast. Anandia Labs is another Canadian firm working on the same science. Jonathan Page, CEO of Anandia Labs and a University of British Columbia botany professor says: botany professor says:

 “Marijuana produces lots and lots of THC, and lots and lots of another compound called CBD, but it also isn’t a very good source of some of the minor cannabinoids.” – Page

Cost comparison

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Chen says that producing cannabinoids with yeast is more cost-effective than artificial synthesis, which is used in creating the drug Marinol that is currently FDA approved in the US for treating nausea and increasing appetite in chemotherapy and AIDS patients. “Natural molecule production is done pretty well by nature, and so we’re working with that as a basis as opposed to just trying to produce things straight from petroleum starting materials or something like that.”

He also says that yeast-production will give more reliable results than cannabis crops, due to the fickle nature of the plant, even in designer strains bred for specific traits. “Maybe you’re growing the same strain twice on two different occasions and maybe there’s a slight difference in the temperature and that results in a big difference in the end product.” Page isn’t quite as sure, because large-scale production is still in the future.

“We don’t have enough real data to support the fact that fermentation would be cheaper than chemical synthesis or plant production, so I can’t really say that’s going to be a clear advantage.” – Page

Where does this leave the plant?

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Don’t worry, Page says, cannabis plants aren’t going to be replaced. “Plants are some of the cheapest chemical production systems on the planet. With just soil, water and light, you can grow a plant that can be made of 25 per cent or more, by dry weight, of the major chemical compounds like THC and CBD. The other advantage is that plants are very easily scalable, in the sense that if you can grow two plants, you can grow a million plants … it’s just a matter of planting more. Whereas scaling up in biotech systems like yeast fermentation can be quite technically challenging.”

Hyasynth: The future

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Chen and his company are looking for potential commercial partners the get their products to market. Though they still need to be tested and approved by regulatory oversight in the industry, he feels that that process could be finalized within a year. Because research into the minor cannabinoids can lead to even more beneficial treatments originating from the marijuana plant, Chen says that in the near future,regulatory oversight in the industry, he feels that that process could be finalized within a year. Because research into the minor cannabinoids can lead to even more beneficial treatments originating from the marijuana plant, Chen says that in the near future,

“You’re going to see a lot more attention being paid towards these kinds of drugs.”

Do you think that yeast production will lead to greater applications of cannabinoid medicine? Will the next big breakthrough come from trace cannabinoids? Share your thoughts on social media or in the comments below. 

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