One of the lead researchers on the Human Genome Project has turned his talents in another direction, taking just two months to sequence a cannabis genome. Kevin McKernan, founder of the Massachusetts firm Medicinal Genomics did it not to help stoners get stonier but as a leading effort to begin separating the medicinal qualities of marijuana from those elements that get people high.
In other words, he did it to help create medicine for fighting cancer and shrinking tumors.
Kevin McKernan, founder and CEO of Medicinal Genomics, recently reported that his biotech company has completed the DNA sequence of marijuana, or to use scientific jargon – Cannabis sativa. But, those who are picking up medical cards just to get high legally shouldn’t get too excited just yet. McKernan believes his findings will help scientists develop a low-THC, or THC-free drug (the mind-altering chemical stoners crave).
McKernan claims there are over 80 compounds in marijuana that have healing powers – namely, pain reducing and tumor shrinking properties. Unfortunately, however, growing the plant is still illegal in many countries, making it difficult to study. So, McKernan has published his findings on Amazon’s EC2 in order to spread the word to scientists worldwide. He hopes his efforts will allow others to continue the research even if they can’t actually grow anything.
There is still a long ways to go before this work will lead to new medicines, but McKernan’s company has been widely praised in the scientific community for making the work public so quickly.
Previously, only two million bases of Cannabis sequence have been deposited in GenBank, a sequence database provided by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). To date, Medicinal Genomics has privately sequenced over 131 billion bases of sequence, which represents a 65,000 fold increase in what has been publicly shared about the Cannabis genome. Concurrently, Medicinal Genomics has published the raw reads from Cannabis sativa on Amazon’s EC2, a public cloud computing service, giving the scientific community access to conduct further research. The Cannabis indica genome sequence will be made available on the EC2 as well. The genome annotations will be made accessible via an iPad application that the company expects to launch in the fall.
“Despite compelling evidence of the therapeutic benefits of Cannabis, very little genomics research has been performed in this area,” said Kevin McKernan, founder and head of scientific operations of Medicinal Genomics. “Cannabis was one of the most difficult genomes that I ever sequenced, and even though only a draft assembly has been constructed, it is important to provide the scientific community with the raw data as quickly as possible. Ongoing scientific research suggests that some of the non-toxic compounds in this plant may ultimately prove to be powerful therapeutics that can treat a wide range of health conditions, including cancer and inflammatory diseases.”
More than 40 U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved clinical trials evaluating Cannabis as a therapy have been completed or are underway, according to information obtained from www.clinicaltrials.gov.
“This is a significant accomplishment,” said Richard Gibbs, Ph.D., director of the human genome sequencing center at the Baylor College of Medicine. “It is excellent to see rapid data release policies being upheld by public and private organizations, particularly when it comes to such challenging genomes.”
With the complete genome in hand, researchers can begin to identify non-psychoactive compounds or enzyme pathways to better elucidate the therapeutic benefits of Cannabis, including the plant’s anti-cancer properties. These pathways can be optimized in the plant or cloned into other hosts for more efficient biologic production. In addition, it may be possible through genome directed breeding to attenuate the psychoactive effects of Cannabis, while enhancing the medicinal aspects.