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‘Mining’ the plant: The cannabis breeders on a mission to advance future medicine

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The team at MMGenetics is looking to unlock the 'hidden potential' of cannabis

Cannabis Health speaks to the team behind MMGenetics about their mission to bring data to the forefront of the sector and develop new strains of cannabis for future medicines.

Rather than produce an end-product, MMGenetics focuses on the source material; the cannabis plant. As its co-founder, Benedict Denman, phrases it, the company is “mining” the plant for cannabinoids, many of which have been unresearched for over 80 years due to government restrictions.

The company is diving into the genetics of cannabis, sourcing unique strains and breeding new ones in an effort to aid pharmaceutical companies in their search for new treatments and medicines.

“We believe that inside the plant there is undiscovered hidden potential to help patients and unlike some big pharmaceutical companies, we respect the integrity of the plant,” Denman says.

“We’re trying to do the hard work of engineering a stable foundation for the future cannabis industry. We’re hoping to create a reference book that companies can come to and can trust will be completely reliable.”

The company aims to move the cannabis sector away from a model based on anecdotal evidence and provide a broader foundation of data to support the research and development of cannabis-based therapeutics.

Central to this is consistency, which founding partner, Owen Van Cauwenberghe, believes current cannabis-based medical products are lacking. The company seeks to improve the predictability of cannabis treatments so they can meet the criteria for a medicine prescribed by a doctor.

Van Cauwenberghe, who is also President and COO of Bio Therapeutic Molecules Inc., says: “It’s actually not helping the industry to have this volume of anecdotal information because it tells people that they don’t need data to support their claim.

“However, if we drive an expectation of quality, predictability and reliability, then everybody should be held to that standard. We’ll set the bar high so that everyone can expect this from whoever they get their materials.”

Ultimately, the company intends to build and provide specific strains of cannabis to help pharmaceutical companies treat certain conditions, such as Alzheimer’s.

Van Cauwenberghe says: “We’re not just taking all of our efforts and running to an outcome that we believe is right, we’re looking to create the opportunity for companies with great ideas to have a resource that they can call on, so they can realise the products that support their ideas.

“Our research will be to help close the difference between the starting material and the desired outcome of that final product. We’ll work along that entire continuum.”

Denman adds: “If a medical company is looking to develop a drug for Alzheimer’s and they have certain indications that a particular ratio of cannabinoids will help treat Alzheimer’s, we’ll do our very best to provide the plant that is as close as possible to what they think will work for treating the condition. This treatment can then go through clinical trials, which will then hopefully will be successful.”

The company aims to do this by exploring the genetic history of cannabis, discovering original strains and picking out relevant characteristics. With this, it can then build new strains of cannabis with a chemical makeup that may have never been seen before.

This is where MMGenetics’ co-founder and chief research officer, Severiano Aznarez, steps in. The Spanish-born entrepreneur has been working as a cannabis breeder and R&D researcher for over 30 years, working with a number of Spanish and Dutch seed banks sourcing rare and unique genetics from around the world.

As the recreational cannabis market has focused its efforts on developing strains that are quick to flower and harvest with high levels of THC, many beneficial cannabinoids have been lost along the way. Aznarez aims to rediscover these chemicals.

“He’s a real man of the mountains,” says Denman. “He lives, breathes and talks plants.

“What you find in the cannabis industry at the moment is people talking a lot about numbers; how high the THC concentration is, or how high the CBD content is. But, in reality every aspect of a plant is important, such as the architecture, its health, how it looks, its colours and its scent.

“Aznarez has always been interested in the plant itself, so he has been concentrating on what I call local genetic archaeology, trying to find all the good stuff inside these plants.”

Denman says MMGenetics unite Aznarez’s skills as a breeder with pharmaceutical procedures to create a “modern methodological” approach, which aims to make these chemicals accessible to the public.

Both Denman and Van Cauwenberghe have stories of how medical cannabis has helped people close to them. Fifteen years ago, Van Cauwenberghe’s mother fell off a ladder, resulting in two broken vertebrae. Although she was lucky to avoid paralysis, she has suffered from pain ever since.

As she is unable to take NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) or opioids to treat the pain, she managed it herself for years with little more than ice and exercise. When she discovered that her son had started working in the medical cannabis sector, she was persuaded to try a CBD extract.

Van Cauwenberghe says: “She’s been taking a CBD extract now for about four months and she has alleviated a pain that she’s lived with for a decade, which she had no other means of alleviating.

“Although it doesn’t cure her, it allows her to sleep better because the pain is decreased, and it allows her to perform better during the day with diminished pain. It’s helping her not only relax but sleep, heal and rebuild.”

Despite global changes to regulations in recent years, medical cannabis remains inaccessible for many people. Van Cauwenberghe uses his home country of Canada as an example, pointing to the Hippocratic Oath, part of which states that doctors cannot prescribe a medicine unless they understand the benefits and risks.

If a doctor prescribes a cannabis-based product to a patient who then experiences an adverse reaction, that doctor would be liable. Due to a lack of evidence surrounding the efficacy of cannabis-based therapeutics, most doctors simply won’t take the risk.

Van Cauwenberghe returns to the power of data to explain how the sector can tackle this issue.

“To get a physician to cross over to medical cannabis, we need the data,” Van Cauwenberghe says. “We need quality, predictability and control of the starting materials and the process to create that product.”

A fundamental goal for MMGenetics is to remove the stigma that surrounds cannabis and remove its association with the recreational market that has prevented it from being more widely used in medical practice.

Founding partner at MMGenetics and director of Bio Therapeutic Molecules Inc., Vince Quiquero, says: “Cannabis is really starting from a deep hole right now, because over the last century it’s been stigmatised as an illegal drug. Even as some countries have started to legalise it, it still comes with that stigma attached and it’s very hard for people who need it for medicinal reasons to get access to it.

“If we can get society over that hurdle of seeing [cannabis] as an elicit plant and look at the potential of what’s available in it, I think there will be more applications for it. It will also be easier for people who truly need it from a medicinal perspective, to get access to the treatments that that they need.”

Quiquero suggests looking at the long history of the pharmaceutical industry to understand the current position of the cannabis sector.

The pharmaceutical and health and wellness industries started by sourcing original materials for drugs from natural materials within plants and animals. Aspirin, for example, is originally derived from willow bark.

After a period of producing almost all drugs synthetically, some pharmaceutical companies are now returning to the natural materials to understand what causes responses in patients. Quiquero says that the industry is now “on the cusp of realising this for cannabis”.

“This is where MMG wants to focus,” he says. “It’s not about getting higher levels of THC, it’s about the medicinal properties of the plant, making sure that the plant can give the right chemistry so it can be used from a medicinal or health and wellness perspective.”

Denman adds: “Anecdotal evidence points to the efficacy of keeping as much of the plant as possible in the final medicine. Big pharmaceutical companies desperately want to find an individual chemical and ignore the plant, but nature doesn’t bend to their will. It really wants to keep the whole plant together and that seems to help the patient more.”

Van Cauwenberghe believes that there needs to be a fundamental shift in cannabis,  which he describes a “financially oriented industry” and calls on the sector to help make the change happen.

He concludes: “We need to invest money into the cannabis space in order to enable its potential, especially considering the global health issues we face right now.

“We have to fundamentally change the sector from a cash-maker to an investment strategy for the future.”

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NFL to explore effects of CBD in players with chronic pain

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The NFL-NFLPA Pain Management Committee wants to find alternative treatments to manage player's chronic pain

America’s National Football League (NFL) is looking into how cannabis and CBD can help in managing player’s chronic pain.

The league and player’s association (NFLPA) made a formal request for information to researchers on “pain management alternatives to opioids” earlier this month.

In an official statement, the NFL-NFLPA Pain Management Committee (PMC) said it is working to “improve player health through evidence-based treatment of acute and chronic pain” and to “facilitate research to better understand and improve potential alternative treatments.”

The NFL is seeking out qualified researchers who could lead studies into pain management and athletic performance in its players.

Areas of investigation include the potential therapeutic role of medications and “non-pharmacological interventions” that are considered to be alternatives to opioids in routine pain management of NFL players, including, but not limited to, cannabinoids such as CBD.

The committee also wants to explore the cannabis or cannabinoids on athletic performance in NFL players.

The PMC was formed in 2019 as part of the NFL-NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement with the goal of benefitting the health and safety of NFL players through education and research.

Last year it conducted two informational forums on CBD to learn about the current state of CBD science and manufacturing in the US, as part of its aim to find alternatives to opioids in the pain management of players.

Respondents to the request are expected to have experience conducting controlled, experimental studies in the relevant areas and should be affiliated with institutions or companies that meet state, federal, and IRB requirements.

However the NFL is not committing to funding any specific studies at this stage, and instead wants to seek out qualified scientists who can assist with future research projects.

CBD is not currently listed on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List and, as a result, is permitted for use in sport.

However, all other cannabinoids such as cannabis, marijuana and THC are prohibited in competition due to the receptors activated in the brain which cause a ‘high’.

A 2018 review assessed the impact CBD has on relieving chronic pain. The review examined a number of studies, concluding that CBD was effective in overall pain management and didn’t cause any other negative side effects.

In addition, it has been suggested that CBD can speed recovery and fight fatigue – welcome news for athletes suffering from long-term or recurring injuries.

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How can CBD help arthritis?

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In a Canadian study, nine out of 10 patients said CBD was effective in managing their pain

In the UK, more than 10 million people have arthritis or other, similar conditions that affect the joints – and many are turning to CBD products to ease their pain and discomfort.

With an ever-expanding range of drinks, gummies and edibles on thee market CBD could be seen as something aimed at the younger generation.

However, there is a growing body of research that suggests CBD can also be of great use for the older members of the population – and one condition in particular.

Arthritis is a common condition that causes pain and inflammation in a joint, and while it can affect people of all ages, it is more likely to begin when people are in their 40s and 50s, worsening with age.

A Canadian study from 2020 found that up to one in five patients who consulted an orthopedic surgeon for chronic musculoskeletal pain were using a cannabis product to treat them, with the express aim of reducing pain.

The researchers also found that interest in the compound was high, with two thirds of non-users curious to try a cannabis product to treat their muscle and joint pain.

Furthermore, those patients already using CBD had generally positive experiences using the products. Nine out of 10 said it was effective in managing their pain, and four in 10 said it decreased their reliance on other pain medications. Nearly 6 in 10 said cannabis products were more effective than other drugs.

Such findings corroborate what we already know about CBD; thanks to its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, early research into its use as a treatment for acute and chronic pain is promising.

A 2016 study found that transdermal cannabidiol has potential for reducing pain and inflammation associated with arthritis without any noticeable side effects.

Cannabis-based medicines can help manage the pain of arthritis by rebalancing the body’s natural endocannabinoid pain-processing system and soothing inflamed body tissues.

There are two primary ways of taking a CBD supplement; topically or orally.

In the case of arthritis, a cream or ointment containing CBD would be rubbed into the affected area. Topical products may also include common over-the-counter ingredients such as menthol, capsaicin or camphor, which could make it difficult to determine if any positive effect is due to the CBD or another ingredient.

There are a number of ways to take CBD orally, from gummies, snacks and drinks to tinctures and capsules – although gummies are discouraged in households with children, due to their similarity with sweets.

However, all work in largely the same way, being absorbed through the digestive tract. However, it is worth noting that absorption can be slow and dosing is tricky due to the delayed onset of effect (one to two hours), unknown effects of stomach acids, recent meals and other factors.

Whichever method you choose, it is always a good idea to check with your medical practitioner first, as CBD, although it is natural, may interact with other treatments, such as prescription medications.

However, for those looking for an alternative to prescribed drugs, with fewer side effects, CBD could well prove to be the answer.

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9 out of 10 readers have self-medicated with cannabis

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Nine out of 10 Cannabis Health readers have consumed cannabis for medical purposes without a prescription – and almost all said they found it to be more effective than conventional medicines.

 

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been asking for your views on social media to delve deeper into how people are consuming cannabis.

As expected, the proportion of our readers who self-medicate with cannabis was high, but the results also demonstrate the perceived effectiveness of cannabis in comparison with traditional medication, highlighting a need for wider access to safe cannabis based medicines.

Self-medicating

Despite the law around medical cannabis changing over two years ago, gaining a prescription can still be challenging, particularly on the NHS.

This has forced a lot of patients to take matters into their own hands.

According to research, as many as 1.4 million Brits are self-medicating with cannabis, equivalent to just over two percent of the country’s population.

Studies from the US have backed this up, with one suggesting that as many as a third of teenagers with a chronic health condition have taken it upon themselves to manage their symptoms with cannabis.

We asked our readers if they were self-medicating to treat a health condition, with the results confirming that almost 94 percent of people said they were.

On top of this, a further five percent said they were not currently, but were open to the idea.

Just over one percent said they weren’t self-medicating due to the stigma attached, however no one responded that the law was a factor in this. 

Effectiveness of self-medicating 

 

Anecdotal evidence and some early studies suggest that cannabis can ease symptoms of some chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia, where other, more conventional medicines have failed.

There is also promise in the potential of cannabis to relieve some mental health conditions, with some saying it has provided huge relief for disorders such as PTSD.

Ninety five percent of Cannabis Health readers polled said they found cannabis extremely effective at relieving symptoms. 

In addition no one said they had found it ineffective when it comes to treating their condition.

The remaining five percent said they found it to have a similar effect as their conventional treatments. 

Route to administration 

How patients consume cannabis can have an impact on its effectiveness, as well as how quickly it kicks in.

With such high numbers both self-medicating and reporting positive effects, we wanted to discover the common consumption methods.

Smoking the flower is the traditional method of consuming cannabis and often viewed as the one which can provide the most relief.

However, even though it has been seen to be less harmful than tobacco, smoking can still lead to a number of other health issues and is note recommended by health professionals.

Despite this, it remained the most popular choice among Cannabis Health readers, with just over a third saying this is how they consume cannabis.

The modern alternative to this is vaping, which was the second most common route to administration among Cannabis Health readers.

Around a third of readers said this was their preferred consumption method.

Some professionals argue this is the healthiest way for consumption, with clinics recommending vaping cannabis flower, but more research is needed in this area.

One method which has few negative effects is the use of oils or tinctures.

This is typically how CBD is consumed, with 21 percent of readers saying this was their preferred method.

Self-medicating alongside conventional medicines

The NHS says it is unlikely that many people in the UK will be able to gain access to a medical cannabis prescription.

Despite this, many patients have chosen to self-medicate with cannabis either alongside or often in the place of conventional therapies. 

The majority of readers agreed with this, with 55 percent saying they no longer use conventional medicines in favour of cannabis.

A further 22 percent said they would only use their conventional medicines if they did not have access to cannabis and the remainder said that they still consume cannabis alongside conventional medication.

Want to get involved? Cannabis Health will be running a number of polls over on our social media pages, to find out more about your views on CBD and cannabis for medical and wellbeing purposes.

Follow @CannabisHnews on Twitter and @Cannabishealthmag on Instagram and keep an eye out.

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