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Scientists to Engineer Cannabinoids with Yeast




Researchers are developing a new way to manufacture tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) using yeast cultures. Two San Diego-based biotech companies, Librede and CB Therapeutics, are on a race to patent a new process of isolating cannabinoids without actually growing any cannabis. While many medical cannabis patients aren’t very receptive to unnatural biopharmaceutical approaches, pharmaceutical companies see it a completely different way.

Under the new process, scientists insert cannabis genes into the DNA of yeast. Then the mutant strains of yeast produce THC and CBD molecules that could be harvested and marketed, a process that requires large amounts of sugar. Yeast is already used to manufacture existing pharmaceuticals. Noscapine, for instance, is a cough suppressant, and it is made by using opium poppy genes and yeast. Like opioids, cannabinoids could also be manufactured in relatively the same way.

“I was pitching this idea in San Diego a few years ago, and it’s funny how things change,” Sher Ali Butt, co-founder and chief executive at CB Therapeutics, told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Before legalization in California, nobody wanted to even take my phone call. I would go places, and people would laugh me out of the room.” Librede Founder Jason Poulos expressed similar issues.

Cannabis and hemp-derived drugs are typically grown naturally, then harvested and extracted in a lab. But a cheaper or less labor intensive process could revolutionize the pharmaceutical side of medicinal cannabis—whether critics like it or not.

Maryland-based Intrexon, another synthetic biotech company, was recently valued at a $2.4 billion market cap. Intrexon, like Librede and CB Therapeutics, announced that it has engineered a yeast strain capable of generating cannabinoids. Once the announcement made its rounds, Intrexon’s stocks soared 27 percent.

According to Butt, CB Therapeutics is ready to commercialize its process within two months. Librede is in a similar position. With the recent approval of GW Pharmaceuticals’ Epidiolex by both the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration, the sky is the limit when it comes to the marketing potential of a new cannabinoid extraction process.