Cannabis contains more than 100 different compounds, but so far researchers have really only thoroughly studied two for their effects on the human body and brain: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Other cannabinoids and terpenes may also have health benefits, but they occur naturally in such small amounts that research on them has been limited.
For decades, scientists have worked to create synthetic versions of those rare—and not so rare—cannabinoids for research purposes. But these potent chemical constructs have found their way to the streets, where they pose serious risks for overdose and death.
Now, though, new technology, called synthetic biology, is making it possible to develop natural cannabinoids in a laboratory using a genetically engineered version of a favorite kitchen staple: baker’s yeast.
Because they’re using a biological—not a chemical—process, new biotech startups Demetrix and Gingko Bioworks say their efforts to develop lab-grown cannabis will make the full spectrum of natural cannabinoids available for research and therapeutic purposes.
And because they’re grown from common, natural organisms, these bioengineered cannabinoids could change the cannabis industry in dramatic ways. These synthetic cannabinoids could make cannabis products:
- More accessible
- More economical
- Far safer than chemically derived synthetics
What Are Synthetic Cannabinoids?
Every strain of the Cannabis sativa plant has a unique profile that’s created by varying proportions of compounds and terpenes. Terpenes are plant resins that add flavor, scent and some health benefits to plants of all kinds, including cannabis.
All of these elements work together to produce the plant’s specific effects on the body’s network of cannabinoid receptors, which are collectively called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The effect of all of these compounds working together is called the entourage effect, and it accounts for the benefits of whole-plant cannabis medicine.
But scientists also needed a way to study the effects of individual cannabis compounds. In the 1960s, researchers developed a way to create cannabinoid-like substances in laboratories. Since then, scientists have developed hundreds of these synthetic cannabinoids for purposes ranging from scholarly research to drug development to turning a profit on the street.
These synthetic cannabinoids aren’t really derived from cannabis. Rather, they’re cannabinoid analogs, created by combining molecule chains that mimic the effects of natural cannabinoids on the body’s two known ECS receptors, CB1 and CB2.
Because they don’t actually contain natural cannabis molecules, they can sidestep the legal restrictions imposed on cannabis—and they don’t show up on drug tests for cannabis consumption.
And because they’re chemically created without the balancing effects of other natural plant compounds, they typically produce intense effects on the body’s ECS receptors.
Scientists Originally Developed Cannabinoid Synthetics for Clinical Use
The first synthetic cannabinoids, called classical cannabinoids, were analogs of THC, developed to study the effects of this psychoactive compound. Hundreds of others with different chemical structures were subsequently created in the U.S., Israel and Europe for legitimate research into the functions of ECS receptors.
This research led to the development of nabilone, a completely synthetic analog of THC that has proven to be effective for treating conditions like:
- Nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy
- Loss of appetite in HIV/AIDS patients
- PTSD-induced nightmares and panic attacks
But by the early 2000s, chemists in Asia and other parts of the world co-opted the formulas that legitimate research labs developed. They then began creating synthetic cannabinoids for sale on the open market as a cheap and very potent high.
Cannabis Synthetics on the Street: A Risky High
As of 2016, drug enforcement agencies had identified over 500 different synthetic cannabinoid analogs being sold for recreational use.
Chemists often add these drugs to dried vegetation packaged as incense or herbal preparations labeled “not for human consumption,” and sold under names such as:
- Black Mamba
More recently, though, some have been selling synthetics as isolates that consumers can add to other substances, or they can vape them. Synthetic cannabinoids are massively popular, especially among younger consumers, because they’re relatively inexpensive and cause potent THC-like effects. And since they don’t contain natural cannabis, they don’t show up on a drug test.
But these synthetic cannabinoids come with considerable risks. Because someone can cook up these synthetic cannabinoids in just about any kind of laboratory, potential harmful elements can show up in them, such as:
- Heavy metals
- Psychoactive substances like psilocybin
- Chemicals like naphthalene
Because there are so many different formulations of synthetic cannabinoids, their effects can vary widely, but these effects can be severe, causing symptoms including:
- Heart palpitations
- Nausea and vomiting
- Poor coordination
- Severe anxiety
Depending on the ingredients a particular synthetic contains, consumers can also suffer damage to:
- The brain
- Other organs
Synthetic cannabinoids can also cause psychosis and severe addiction, thanks to their powerful effects on ECS receptors in the brain.
A New Kind of Synthetic: Natural Cannabis Compounds
In spite of the troubling connections between synthetic cannabinoids and the illicit drug trade, the demand for cannabinoids is soaring. The typical model of cannabis plant cultivation and extraction can’t keep up with this demand, especially for minor cannabinoids and terpenes that don’t occur naturally in large quantities.
But in early 2019, a group of researchers at UC Berkeley achieved a breakthrough that promises to radically transform the way scientists produce and people take these synthetic cannabinoids.
Rather than combining chemical chains to mimic the effects of compounds like THC and CBD, the Berkeley group used genetically engineered yeast to develop the natural essential precursors for THC and CBD. Using these precursors, they were able to produce the actual compounds themselves.
This technology, called synthetic biology, holds so much promise for creating a range of cannabis-based products and medications that Berkeley bioengineer Jay Keasling co-founded his own biotech startup to pursue the research. His firm, Demetrix, aims to use synthetic biology to produce rare natural ingredients of all kinds.
Developing synthetic cannabinoids through biological, rather than chemical processes is more economical and environmentally friendly. It yields a cleaner, purer product that’s toxin free and safer to use, because it affects the body like natural cannabis does.
Now, Gingko Bioworks has received $100 million in support from Cronos, a large Canadian cannabis producer, to develop rarer, lesser-known cannabinoids in large quantities for the medical and commercial cannabis markets.
Demetrix, Gingko Bioworks and a few similar startups hope to solve the problem of producing large amounts of cannabis compounds for use in research and the development of new cannabis products and medications.
The first round of these new synthetics is expected to hit the market in early 2020, so their impact remains to be seen. But a new technology that creates real cannabis compounds, rather than risky chemical lookalikes, could make cannabis products safer and more available than ever before.
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