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



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