Sequencing The Marijuana Genome To Cure Disease, Get You Less High

Medicinal Genomics has just finished sequencing the cannabis genome. Not to make some truly righteous bud, but to find the parts of the plant that are medicinally valuable and make them into drugs that don't also get people stoned.

The genetic secrets of everyone's favorite munchie-inducing plant have finally been unlocked. Last week, a company called Medicinal Genomics announced that it sequenced the genomes for cannabis sativa and cannabis indica—two of the three species of marijuana (the third is cannabis ruderalis). But stoners should put down their celebratory joints. This doesn't mean that super-potent cannabis strains are on the horizon; instead,Medicinal Genomics plans to use its research to help scientists breed marijuana strains that get smokers less high but have more medicinal benefits.

Medicinal Genomics founder Kevin McKernan, a veteran of the Human Genome Project (he managed the R&D team for the project at MIT), first became interested in the medicinal qualities while studying of marijuana after some friends pointed him in the direction of a study claiming that certain cannabis compounds can shrink tumors. "The challenge is that there is a potpourri of cannabinoids, and we can't measure what those are. We need a genetic understanding of the plant," says McKernan.

In addition to shrinking tumors, other potential benefits of the 85 cannabinoids in the plant include calming inflammation and reducing cancer-related pain. But over the past 30 years, growers have hyper-bred the plant for THC (the compound that gets smokers high), effectively eliminating many of the other useful cannabinoids.

So Medicinal Genomics set out to sequence the cannabis genomes and bring some of those semi-extinct cannabinoids back into the plant. The company has moved quickly—it started sequencing indica and sativa in June, and is already finished—-but the process cost $200,000, and Medicinal Genomics expects to ultimately spend another $200,000 on refining the results.

Even though it is becoming increasingly cheap and easy to sequence human DNA, the process is more expensive for other species. "They have a reference genome [the Human Genome Project), and since humans are only different by one in 800 bases, the cost of sequencing the next person is suddenly very, very cheap," explains McKernan. Cannabis, on the other hand, has no reference genome.

"It took us about a month to collect data. The hard part is assembling it and making sense of it," says McKernan.

The next step for Medicinal Genomics is to find strains that are high in therapeutic cannabinoids like CBD, a compound that has been shown to reduce inflammation, anxiety, and nausea. "Our plan is to understand genetics of this so that companies that are interested in making drugs from [cannabis] have better info to work with," says McKernan. When companies come knocking, Medicinal Genomics will do more sequencing and analysis to help them breed plants that express higher levels of medicinal compounds. (Medicinal Genomics does not breed its own plants, though the Massachusetts-based company has its lab in—where else?—the Netherlands.)

According to McKernan, major pharmaceutical companies already have an interest in medicinal marijuana. GW Pharmaceutical, for example, has developed a cannabis-derived drug called Sativex that is used to treat muscle stiffness, bladder problems, and neuropathic pain from multiple sclerosis. Sativex is already available in Germany, Spain, and the U.K., where it is marketed by Bayer.

Interested in helping Medicinal Genomics decode cannabinoids? The company is releasing an iPad app in the fall that will contain some of its data. "There's a bottleneck [with research] because in the States and it's illegal to handle marijuana without a license," says McKernan. "By putting the data on the web, everyone in the world can study this."

[Image: Flickr user spotreporting]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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  • Joe Momma

    positiveMed's question is very perceptive. Harborside Health Center has been actively cultivating CBD-rich strains of cannabis for the medical marijuana community since 2009 as part of ProjectCBD, and even they drew upon existing research. Harborside members can obtain these strains in herbal form or as edible tinctures. Here is a report from Harborside that details some of the testing that they have conducted on CBD and THC potency: http://www.harborsidehealthcen....

    I don't want to sound critical of the good work that Medicinal Genomics is doing. I think it is great that researchers are converging on a common discovery from different approach vectors. But to answer positiveMed's question, they don't. CBD can, and is, being selectively reintroduced into the medical cannabis supply, and these efforts are fully supported (and funded) by the medical marijuana community. 

    And...I think Harborside is in an excellent position to help Medicinal Genomics take that "next step." 

  • Ariel Schwartz

    CBD is by far the most well-known therapeutic compound in marijuana, but there are many, many more that researchers don't yet understand. And as I mentioned, these compounds have largely been bred out of the current cannabis supply because no one understands how they work/what they do.  Analyzing the genome could change that.

  • Joe Momma

    I appreciate your perceptive reporting and I think genetic research has a lot to offer this field, but I challenge the notion that non-THC compounds have been "bred out" of the cannabis supply.

    Favoring plants with high concentrations of THC is much different than attempting to eliminate a specific trait, and THC itself has many medical applications beyond just getting stoned. Besides, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that non-THC compounds existed in higher concentrations 30 years ago.

    Many growers in the medical cannabis community actively breed and cross-breed plants for specific effects--anti-nausea, anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, etc. These are often complex cultivation projects that encompass dozens of strains as they are bred through several generations. It's really not much different in theory than breeding dogs with spots or fruit flies with legs on their heads. We may not always understand the specific genes responsible for these effects, but we nonetheless understand and can produce these effects. So there is at least a tacit understanding of how to manipulate the potpourri of cannabinoids in marijuana plants through selective breeding.

    Look, I like what Medicinal Genomics is doing, and as a medical information science student, I applaud their efforts to get this information on the Web where people can conduct collaborative research. Clearly, I would be naive not to concede that there are plenty of THC-obsessed stoners out there who consider "playing Nintendo" to be a medical necessity. But it is an empirical fact that we don't need DNA sequencing to find or breed strains with less THC and higher concentrations of CBD and other cannabinoids. 

  • positiveMed

    Why do they need to decode Cannabis genome to find some strains with less THC and more therapeutic agents?!  

  • Kevin McKernan

    Sorry for replying to this years later. I only saw this thread now after reading another one of Ariels articles on Glass structures which emulate viruses. Marker assisted selection is one potential use but I don't pretend to know all of the future uses of the cannabis genome. I have no doubt mendelian genetics can and will continue to deliver wonders for breeding. The genome just offers a different tool to perhaps accelerate those efforts. Its estimated 100-500ng of DNA can be purified from a seed and a non-destructive core sampling of seed could harvest 10-50ng of DNA. This is enough to sequence the entire genome of the seed before its planted. Instead of making seedlings and growing them out to sniff for phenotypes 10 weeks later, if all of those phenotypes were tied to a known genomic location (called a QTL), crosses could be done, seeds could be screened and "marker assisted selection" could begin to accelerate strain design. Every other Ag crop which has moved to MAS (Not GMO) has seen 4-5X faster strain development timelines. Cannabis probably won't get that big of a bump since it breeds faster naturally but a 2-3X increase in strain design TAT should be easy. To date, the genetics which govern CBC are still not pure. Bedrocan may have the best high CBC strain but it still has background CBD or THC in it. The genome may help guide for genetic measurements which could be used to make more predictive crosses for one specialized cannabinoid or terpene chemotype.