Australian researchers suggest loosening cannabis research rules could remove the cap on possibilities

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Anti-drug laws are putting a damper on fully exploring marijuana’s potential with respect to its possible health-helping benefits and how cannabis genomics may contribute to meeting that goal.

Researchers at Australia’s La Trobe University’s reviewed a raft of international studies of cannabis genomics and confirmed what many already believe.

Despite the many decades that cannabis has been studied, anti-drug laws are creating hurdles to identifying what scientists expect are weed’s unique medicinal properties, Mathew Lewsey, an associate professor at the university and the study’s lead researcher, suggests in a university statement.

That has left understanding of cannabis in the dust compared with some of its other plant brethren. “These rules have meant that while our understanding of the basic biology and properties of other crop species has advanced through the use of genomics, for example, our knowledge of cannabis has lagged,” says Lewsey.

“There is ample anecdotal evidence and an increasing number of clinical trials about the benefits of cannabis, but there remain challenges around the production of high-quality plant-based therapeutic grade products and their provenance,” Tony Bacic, a professor at the university and the paper’s co-author.

Published in New Phytologist, he points out there are “potentially many more untapped benefits of this fascinating plant” beyond the role it plays in relieving nausea, acting as an anti-inflammatory agent, alleviating pain and reducing seizures in children with some forms of drug-resistant epilepsy.

Beyond those barriers, though, paper authors also found that Illegal cultivation of cannabis has restricted the genetic potential of existing cultivars. / PHOTO BY BORISRABTSEVICH / ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS

Beyond those barriers, though, the authors also found that the illegal cultivation of cannabis has restricted the genetic potential of existing cultivars. Genomics-assisted breeding would increase the efficiency and precision of cannabis crop improvement, and an improved understanding of how cannabis genomes differ between cultivars could contribute to the growing medicinal cannabis industry.

But there may be some encouragement forming. Pointing out that certain jurisdictions have relaxed rules around cannabis cultivation for research, medicinal and even recreational purposes, the paper notes, “there is now potential to accelerate cultivar development of this multi-use and potentially medically useful plant species by application of modern genomics technologies.”

As it stands, work is proceeding on better understanding the plant and making it as strong as possible. For example, researchers in Canada have recently received funding to consider what role enhanced cannabis cultivars can have on disease resistance. And an Israeli start-up reports that it has used gene-editing technology to make the marijuana plant resistant to potentially deadly powdery mildew.

Young scientist looking through a microscope in a laboratory. Young scientist doing some research.

Image for representation: The multi-nation research team found that “less than 50 per cent of the cannabis genome is accurately mapped.” / PHOTO BY ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS

Earlier this year, the University of Saskatchewan reported that “unlocking the full potential of cannabis for agriculture and human health will require a co-ordinated scientific effort to assemble and map the cannabis genome.”

Appearing in the Annual Review of Plant Biology, researchers, again, concluded large gaps exist “in the scientific knowledge of this high-demand, multi-purpose crop.” The multi-nation research team found that “less than 50 per cent of the cannabis genome is accurately mapped,” meaning, “we lack the foundation on which to build a molecular breeding program for cannabis comparable to what exists for other crops.”

Lead author Tim Sharbel made clear that “developing a high-quality genetic blueprint would provide the building blocks for genomics-based breeding and applications to human and animal health.”

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