"Genetics" is a word that is often tossed around in the cannabis industry. Even before the boom in legal cannabis, plant enthusiasts knew the value that gene science could add to the recreational and medical experience.
For the most part, efforts in genetic research surrounding cannabis have been focused on the plant instead of the user.
Cannabis sativa’s genetic material has been thoroughly studied and dissected, but the quest to understand how our own genes interact with the plant is still in its early stages. Enough knowledge about human-cannabis interaction has been gathered, however, for companies to leave the realm of academic research and enter the commercial space.
Today, if you have $200 and a mailing address, you can obtain a personalized DNA test that will analyze your unique genetic characteristics and explain what type of cannabis best fits your genetic profile.
After a simple cheek swab, these companies can obtain your entire DNA sequence. Their analysis lets them find out the 1% of DNA that makes you special, and then contrast this data to peer-reviews studies on medical cannabis to recommend a method of consumption; a CBD-to-THC ratio; or a selected terpene profile.
How Does It Work?
“What we’re doing is, we’re looking at the genetics in a person’s body to determine how the body is going to process and respond to cannabis and the compounds that are in cannabis products,” said Dr. Charles Sailey, genetic research partner at MelixGX, a company offering genetic testing.
The company's testing system is based on certain variants that people have in their DNA that cause each individual to respond differently, such as the gene that encodes an enzyme that processes THC or CBD or a gene that encodes the receptors where cannabinoids and terpenes bind.
After looking at all these variants, MelixGX comes up with an algorithm that predicts the way a person will respond to a particular cannabis product.
Both companies interviewed we spoke raised the issue of a slew of competitors offering the same service.
A clear rift exists between companies doing the genetic tests themselves and expanding research with in-house scientific teams, and those that lack academic expereience and offer a diluted version of the tests without proper scientific support, the execs said.
Consumers looking to take these tests for themselves are advised to look into the company they hire to ensure the best quality is achieved.
Endocanna's 3 Variables
Endocanna Health was one of the first companies in the cannabis space to offer this service.
CEO Len May was focusing his studies on plant genetics when he realized that people have different experiences when they consume the same exact cultivar.
That led him to start the company with the goal of finding out which genes and snips — single-nucleotide polymorphisms — affect the endocannabinoid system, directly or indirectly, he told Benzinga.
The CEO walked us through the way Endocanna makes recommendations after obtaining a user’s DNA code.
“Every single thing that we say has a reference associated to it. Now, the references are given a different weight. If there’s a completed human trial, that gets a grade of a 4. If a study is done on an animal, then it gets a 3. If it’s done in-vitro, then it gets a 2. And if it’s an observational study, then it gets a 1. These are all peer-reviewed.”
If a study is too specific, Endocanna's scientific team will not accept it.
After having created this database, which is updated as new studies come out, the company came up with the symptomatic conditions, or traits, that relate back to the use of cannabis — and where genetics make a difference. These traits include anxiety, depression, cognitive function, increased chance of pain, sleep and psychosis.
“These are all things that people would use cannabis for, so there’s three different variables," May said:
- Do people consume cannabis for this?
- Is there a gene or a snip or a phenotype that is associated with any of these traits?
- Is there a peer-reviewed essay or reference that is associated with the finding?
If all these three are positive, Endocanna will make a suggestion to the user, the CEO said.
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Is There Enough Research?
Most people in the cannabis space are aware of the fact that, given the U.S. federal ban on cannabis and the drug’s classification as a Schedule 1 narcotic, scientific research licenses are difficult to come by.
This situation widely limits the amount of research done on the plant. That’s why we couldn’t help but wonder if the scientific community has obtained enough data for companies like Endocanna and MelixGX to make precise recommendations to patients and customers.
Benzinga raised this question with Rob Dhoble, an expert in cannabis science and Managing Director of Havas ECS, a consulting firm focused on cannabis communications that is part of the Havas Group.
The companies face a “policy dilemma,” he said.
Since these companies work under the principle of cannabis as a medicine, and the DEA is still considers marijuana to have no medical value federally, their products cannot be approved medical devices, and therefore the algorithms they use are in contradiction with federal law, Dhoble said.
Endoncanna's May said there will never be enough scientific research to be 100% sure of anything.
The technology behind his company and others is ready to make people’s lives better, the CEO said.
“There’s over 15,000 articles alone in pubmed on cannabis,” he said.
“We don’t make any claims, we don’t make recommendations, we make suggestions. But people have to be cautious, because the cannabis industry is ever-changing. So, do we need more research? Definitely. We encourage everybody to do research, because that research gets fed into our system, and we will get better.”
MelixGX's Sailey said his company is solely focusing on anxiety, pain and insomnia at this time, since these are the three areas in which they were able to secure a reasonable amount of data from over 4,000 publications.
What Do Cannabis Experts Have To Say?
Dr. Susan Trap is a Ph.D. researcher who has done extensive research on terpenes and their therapeutic applications.
“In general, these pharmacogenetic tests are useful for the novice user to generalize which strains — indica, sativa or hybrid— best suit their specific cannabis profile,” she told Benzinga.
But in her opinion, these tests still require much more data sampling in order to increase their accuracy, and Trap said these will only come with time.
Dr. Jordan Tishler, a Harvard physician and President of the Association of Cannabis Specialists, said the genetic testing companies are headed in the right direction, but said there are several caveats to the way they operate today.
Tishler is skeptical of any kind of suggestion made outside of a medical context since there may be other illnesses, characteristics, medications or situations that are not apparent simply from the genetic material and need to be factored into any medical recommendation.
“No field of medicine would base action solely on one test result,” he said.
“Genetic testing should be used only at the recommendation or order of a treating clinician, and results should be sent to that clinician for interpretation, communication to the patient,and action as needed.”
Dr. Levan Darjania has over 18 years of research experience in the biotech and pharma space and is the chief scientific officer at Vertical Wellness.
"This is just a fresh start that requires way more definitive and specific preclinical and clinical studies and validations before it can be recommended as a 'solution' to patients and users."
Picture by Arek Socha from Pixabay and Nikita Golubev from Flaticon.
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