The highs and lows of running a synbio cannabis start-up

26 Feb 2016

Modifying cannabinoids at a molecular level. Image via Kevin Chen/Hyasynth

While various parts of the world debate whether or not cannabis should be legalised, one Canadian synthetic biology (synbio) start-up is looking to beat others to the competition by making highs a scientific pursuit.

A quick Google of the word ‘cannabis’ throws up a whole litany of results discussing the legalisation of the plant in western countries like the US and, of course, Ireland, along with the typical news reports of drug busts and horror stories about the drug, produced from the hemp plant.

Indeed, over the last number of years, the tide is turning, perhaps most visibly in the US, where currently there are three states that have legalised cannabis use, those being, Oregon, Washington and Colorado.

But aside from whether you believe it’s right for someone to use cannabis for recreational use or therapeutic use, the entire process of creating products that are slowly filling the shelves of health stores is an inefficient one.

Synthesised dream

When looking from a pharmaceutical perspective, to access the Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) that are extracted and used from the plant is a process that is not only expensive, but can also lead to wildly different amounts of the relevant substances being extracted.

So, the question is for some scientists is, why not synthesise it?

One of the speakers at the recent SynBio Future 2016 conference was Canadian native Kevin Chen, co-founder of Hyasynth, a company looking to do exactly that.

Beakers Hyasynth

Image via Kevin Chen/Hyasynth

Since founding the start-up in Canada in 2014 with colleagues and receiving the equivalent of CA$800,000 through a combination of the IndieBio accelerator here in Ireland, investors and the Canadian government; Hyasynth has been researching the synthetic production of cannabinoids using yeast or bacteria, which could produce cannabinoids much more cheaply and in larger quantities than through natural means.

A perfect example of this having already happened can be seen in rubber where, rather than chop down thousands of rubber trees for the extract, the synthetic creation of the substance is now used in two-thirds of all car tyres globally.

An untapped market

Speaking with at the event, Chen says he and the rest of the Hyasynth team are tapping into a market that is only just shaking off some of the stigma attached to it, and Chen says he hopes Hyasynth can establish itself as the leader in the field.

“The cannabis market in itself is pretty open and ready for [a therapeutic cannabinoid derivative], so one of the things I think is that it can move fairly quickly from a proof of concept stage or to a product stage and beyond that fairly quickly,” he says.

Shoham Mookerjee Hyasynth

Hyasynth co-founder, Shoham Mookerjee. Image via Kevin Chen/Hyasynth

During his presentation at the event, he highlighted the fact that five out of the top-10 chronic pain drugs on the market worth an estimated $45bn could be addressed using cannabinoids, of which there are over 100, not including THC and CBD.

This isn’t to say that big pharma hasn’t tried to synthesise cannabinoids, but many of the products were never brought to market, or in some cases were taken off the market entirely.

Cutting through the red tape

Certainly of benefit to Hyasynth is the fact that Chen acknowledges the fact that much of the research into synthesising cannabinoids is led, not by the established institutions, but by small labs and start-ups like Hyasynth, largely due to the red tape that surrounds cannabis research.

“Very few people in the US actually have permits, which localises this research subject into interesting locations because they’re the ones who want to do it very passionately, rather than seeing it show up in Harvard or MIT and all those other major institutions,” Chen says.

Test tubes Hyasynth

Image via Kevin Chen/Hyasynth

That’s not to say that the nature of the start-up’s research has been smooth sailing, with Chen admitting that some tech and biotech investors won’t even give them a glance once the word cannabis is uttered, but on the flipside of that there are plenty eager to get in on what could be a high potential market.

First molecule by end of year

Other hotbeds of synthetic cannabis research are out there too, Chen says, most notably in Israel, Italy, Poland and his native Canada.

But, sticking with Hyasynth, Chen says that he and those within the start-up are gearing up towards a bright future as he admits that they aim to have a commercial strain of a therapeutic cannabinoid molecule by the end of this year.

“In a business sense, we’ve had a few offers for commercialisation, which is all lined up if we want someone to partner up with,” he also adds.

In summing up the reasons for looking into the ‘high life’ of cannabinoid research, Chen says: “Amongst our founders, we chose this product because we love it, it’s interesting, it’s a challenge and it is very diverse in what has to go into it and, sure, it’s catchy, but also, now, getting into it, you find it’s a really interesting thing to do that no one else is [doing].”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic