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5 key requirements for unleashing innovation in the cannabis industry

The cannabis industry faces a systemic problem where the legal nomenclature used to distinguish varietals of ​Cannabis Sativa is known to be unrelated to the genetic identity of the plant.1 Cannabis plants being bought and sold under any specific trade name can be genetically unrelated and may not even have a shared cultivation history.

During black market cultivation, popular varietal names were commonly adopted without regard to the plant’s breeding history or genetic identity. As the legal market transitioned popular varieties, many genetically distinct plants were introduced bearing the same trade names. 

While business-to-business transfers of cannabis flower, plant or seed represent a significant part of industry transactions, there remain no standard means by which buyers can be assured that the cannabis varietal ordered is the one received. Though many challenges are facing the cannabis industry, there are exciting opportunities to develop innovations to validate and even improve products.

Below I will explore five key innovation requirements that can unlock tremendous value for the cannabis industry.

1. Reduce price barriers to a point where genetic validation of varietal identity becomes standard practice

Currently, whole-genome sequencing (WGS) is the most common technology used to identify varietals of ​Cannabis Sativa. However, WGS can be relatively expensive, costing ~$1,500-$3,000 per genome.

Though governments regulate the tracking and traceability of cannabis through “seed-to-sale” systems, there is currently limited means by which any receiver of cannabis flower, plant, seed or product can verify that the contents of a package match the name on the box.

Some companies have led the way in creating resources for genetic identification and validation. Phylos Bioscience created the Cannabis Galaxy where producers can register their genetics. At ~$300USD per analysis (with bulk pricing available), Phylos is significantly undercutting the cost associated with WGS and alternatives in the market.

Similarly, blazing new trails is TruTrace Technologies with its “Genome To Sale™” platform StrainSecure. TruTrace’s partner, Lighthouse Genomics has developed the “Lighthouse Genovar Assay” that “targets approximately 40,000 strategically-selected genomic markers across over 5,000 unique genes and all chromosomes.”2 At ~$500CDN per assay (volume discounts decreasing the price < $100CDN per assay!), it is also very price disruptive.

2. Produce results fast enough to match the speed of business

WGS can take up to 3-6 weeks to produce results, significantly limiting its utility for high-volume and time-sensitive applications. The technologies discussed above, despite being relatively low cost, still deliver results in weeks to months. There is still a real need for a genetic validation process that is time-efficient. 

Using technologies to test cannabis at the “point of grow” (site of production) represents an exciting opportunity to enable producers to gain important insights in real-time. We have seen in medicine how rapid point of care testing has revolutionized the practice and dramatically improved patient health outcomes.3

Likewise, rapid point-of-grow tests could become an important tool for producers. Medicinal Genomics has produced several PCR-based point-of-grow assays as part of the “youPCR Plant Screening Platform” that can provide important insights in real-time.

3. Be scalable and deployable across all legal cannabis jurisdictions

The cannabis industry regularly engages in wholesale bulk transfers between producers, retailers, value-added service providers and customers. Technologies that can access economies of scale and become standard genetic testing tools for the industry include next-generation sequencing, gene chips and gene markers/genetic fingerprinting (similar to use in forensics).

A lingering challenge will be how the industry will judge the quality and utility of any specific assay used at scale. The quality of an assay and utility of the data produced relies on not only the underlying technology but also on the operator of the assay. 

In medicine, standards have been created to ensure good laboratory practices are maintained for clinical testing facilities and that qualified people are running the tests. A federal framework governing clinical testing called the “Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments” (commonly referred to as CLIA) has been established to ensure quality and reliability in clinical laboratory testing. 

What will be the parallel standard for the cannabis industry and who will lead the way? Companies like the ones discussed herein have a big head start and could begin to establish standards that could help raise the bar for the quality of science done in the cannabis industry. This could help not only secure their own positions in the industry as leaders but also weed out armature players that could negatively impact the industry’s reputation or worse, cause harm.

4. Produce other insights and value-added information beyond varietal identity

The customer/end-user is not primarily interested in the varietal identity which a genetic standard provides but in a specific and consistent experience. The plant’s biochemical properties impart the smell, taste, and bioactive compounds that mediate the cannabis experience.

The biochemical properties of a plant are related to the genetics, growing conditions and health of the organism. Creating biochemical standards can indicate the plant’s health (important for producers), expected end-user experience (important for customers), and help distinguish signature varietals (important for innovators).

The cannabis industry needs good biochemical profile standards or chemical fingerprints to benchmark cannabis products and protect unique varieties through smell and taste trademarks. This goes beyond the current chemical analysis done as part of a quality assurance certificate. This type of fingerprint will require the integration of many more data points, looking at a much broader spectrum of flavonoids, terpenes and major and minor cannabinoids than commonly assayed. 

This will help producers make innovative and more consistent products, protect their investments in innovation and help consumers identify higher quality products that better predict experiences that relate to identifiable brands.

5. Relate quantitative insights to qualitative experiences that can push R&D to the next level

As new varieties are developed to appeal to more sophisticated cannabis consumers and for specific medical purposes, there are exciting opportunities to correlate user experience data to the laboratory biochemical analysis of the plant. By tying together plant-based data (like gene and biochemical signatures) to user-based data (like experiences and medical information), scientists and breeders can better identify traits that might result in better performing plants, which may also have unique, recognizable and most importantly, desirable properties.

The challenge of reconciling big data sets that make sense of biochemical data, plant genetics and human experiences is one which promises to unlock a great deal of value for the industry and for the innovators who can get it done.  Recently, two companies, StrainPrint Technologies and TruTrace Technologies, announced an exciting collaboration to form a joint venture.  The joint venture promises to “develop new tools and systems designed to improve the overall experience of cannabis patients and consumers by connecting validated product data with authenticated patient data.”4 These types of synergistic approaches to big data will help accelerate the rate of innovation and unlock the fullest potential of the cannabis plant. 

What next?

For the cannabis industry to develop truly innovative products and services, two major steps need to be taken. 

Firstly, the foundational science and technology tools need to be developed. There is already organic adoption of new technologies by industry players who want to protect their intellectual property, enforce distribution rights, and manage an R&D pipeline. For instance, Shoppers Drug Mart, Canada’s largest pharmacy chain, has started using TruTrace’s Genome To Sale™ technology to “help guarantee product quality and genetics throughout the supply chain from genome-to-patient”.5

Secondly, governments should require some level of standardization for the types of technologies that will play essential roles in the governance and oversight of value chains. Not all assays are born equal; some are limited in the information they provide.

There are real incentives for governments to require quality standards for transparency and law enforcement. Without a way of reliably distinguishing what can be legally sold, there will be no real means to limit the impact of grey and black-market players.  

Standard genetic testing of varietals could go a long way to distinguish distinct cultivars while bringing transparency and adding legitimacy to the industry. Biochemical fingerprinting can go a long way to improve quality and predict consistent consumer experiences.  

Scientists and companies are working hard to develop these new technologies and the industry and consumers will be better for it.

Peter Azmi is the Founder & Chief Strategist at i+ Business Development Studios, a full-service innovation strategy and business development agency headquartered in Toronto, Canada.

There are still spaces available at next month’s International Cannabinoid-Based Drug Discovery & Development Congress. Register here today.


References:

1 Sawler J, Stout J et al. The Genetic Structure of Marijuana and Hemp. PLOS ONE Aug. 26, 2015.

2 https://lighthousegenomics.com/product/40000-snp-genotype-array-analysis/. Accessed February 2020.

3 Kozel et al., Point-of-Care Testing for Infectious Diseases: Past, Present, and Future, J Clin Microbiol, 55 (8), 2313-2320 Aug 2017.

4 https://trutrace.co/press-release/trutrace-and-strainprint-plans-to-establish-a-new-joint-venture/ Accessed February 2020.

5 https://trutrace.co/in-the-news/shoppers-drug-mart-announces-partnership-with-trutrace-technologies-to-help-guarantee-product-quality-and-genetics-from-genome-to-patient/ Accessed February 2020.

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